Although negotiations over a package of tax increases and a proposed casino collapsed Monday night, the Maryland General Assembly passed a lot of bills this session — 791, to be exact. Of those, 96 percent were passed in the last week, including hundreds in the hours and minutes before midnight on Monday. Here are some highlights from the 90-day session’s last day:
The Senate spent much of the session’s waning hours fiercely debating a stormwater fee bill that was on few people’s radar earlier in the session. The bill requires localities to fund projects to reduce polluted runoff from roads, buildings and parking lots. It has been introduced before, but it gained unexpected momentum this year after Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) scaled back his “flush tax” proposal.
Republicans attempted a filibuster, with Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s) alone offering over 10 amendments. “In effect, what we’re saying is we’re going to tax rain water,” Pipkin said.The Senate shut down debate and approved the bill shortly before midnight. In the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) hurriedly ushered it to passage before Republicans in that chamber could mount a challenge.
The law will apply to Maryland’s nine largest counties and Baltimore, although Montgomery County is exempt because it has a similar fund already. The Senate adopted an amendment to exempt government property and volunteer fire departments from paying the fee.
Localities will set their own fees based on the amount of land covered by pavement, sidewalks and rooftops. But fees could be reduced for landowners with swales, rain barrels and other means of reducing pollution runoff.
Most Marylanders will see the yearly cost of their “flush tax” double to $60 from $30 starting in July. The tax, added on to water and sewer bills, is used to fund sewage treatment upgrades and other Chesapeake Bay restoration activities. The Senate adopted a Republican amendment keeping the tax at $30 for some people in far western Maryland and near Ocean City whose water does not drain into the bay’s watershed.
O’Malley had sought to make the fee progressive, based on water consumption. But lawmakers concluded that would have strained small businesses, and they instead settled on a flat doubling of the fee.
SEPTIC SYSTEM LIMITS
Counties will have to adopt a “tiered” system of rules to limit new housing developments served by septic systems, especially in areas dominated by farmland and forestland. O’Malley said the limits are needed to curb residential sprawl and reduce the waste that leaches from the developments and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. However, a more forceful attempt by O’Malley to curb septic use by inserting the state into local land-use decisions was watered down significantly.
One hundred years late, Maryland will ratify the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that established popular election of U.S. senators. Before then, state legislators elected senators. Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), a law professor, spearheaded the legislation as a symbolic gesture against corporate money in politics.
REMOVAL OF PUBLIC OFFICIALS FROM OFFICE
The Maryland Constitution will be amended to immediately force public officials to resign when they plead guilty to, or are convicted of, a felony or certain misdemeanors related to their public duties. The bill was spurred by the spectacle surrounding Leslie Johnson, who clung to her seat on the Prince George’s County Council even after she pleaded guilty in a federal corruption probe.
COMPULSORY SCHOOL ATTENDANCE
Children will have to stay in school through age 16 starting in the 2015-16 school year. The requirement now is through age 15. In the 2017-18 school year, the age would rise again to 17 — meaning students could not drop out until turning 18.
FAMILY FARM PRESERVATION
The estate tax will be reduced for people who inherit family farms as long as they use it for farming purposes. Intended to provide a safety net for family farms, which often face liquidation when owners die, the bill was one of the lesser-noticed items on O’Malley’s legislative agenda.
Starting next year, state lawmakers will have to file ethics forms electronically. Conflict-of-interest forms and information about legislators’ and their spouses’ outside employment will be posted online.
The House scaled back a version that passed the Senate by exempting county governments and removing the requirement that officials’ comprehensive financial disclosure forms be put online. In the coming months, a study group will decide how much of the comprehensive forms could go on the Internet without compromising lawmakers’ personal information.
The measure was spurred by an ethics case brought against Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s), who failed to disclose outside consulting income from a grocery chain for five years.
Fees and the likelihood of jail will be reduced for possession of small amount of marijuana under a bill sponsored by Raskin. A person convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana will face a maximum jail term of 90 days and/or a maximum fine of $500.
CANCER PRESUMPTION FOR FIREFIGHTERS
This O’Malley bill expands list of cancers that firefighters and rescue squad members are presumed to have suffered in line of duty. The list will now include multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, testicular cancer and breast cancer.
Landowners in Western Maryland will have some extra legal protection if the state allows energy companies to drill for shale gas — still an open question. The bill would establish a “presumptive impact area” around gas wells where it would be presumed that water contamination was caused by drilling activity.