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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Damascus, Md.'s Last Dry Town, May Get a Drink

DAMASCUS, Md. - As the last dry town in Maryland, Damascus may be known for its farms and its football team, but not for its nightlife. This could change, however, as a bill passed Thursday in the House of Delegates would allow for sit-down restaurants in this town of about 15,000 to serve wine and beer.

Damascus is the only town in the state that does not allow the sale of alcohol in any way, said Sen. Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery. House Bill 690, which will now move to the Senate, would allow the handful of restaurants in town to serve wine and beer to customers who are seated, but would not allow for the creation of bars or the sale of hard liquor.

"It's about time," said Damascus resident Cindy McKneely as she sat down for lunch at Tom and Ray's, a local restaurant. While she would prefer that alcohol be fully available in the town, she said restaurants are "better than nothing."


Georgia Supremes Accused of Being 'Sham'

An attorney working on a case challenging Barack Obama’s name on the Georgia 2012 presidential election ballot says the state’s “laws and courts are a sham” and protect the powerful against the powerless.

The comments come from Van Irion of Liberty Legal Foundation, one of several attorneys who started out several weeks ago with a challenge to Obama’s candidacy based on a state law that allows residents to require candidates to prove their eligibility for the office they seek.

At the hearing level, an administrative law judge simply threw out all of the evidence and ruled in favor of Obama, who, along with his lawyer, snubbed the hearing and refused to appear at all.


Iraq Militia Frees U.S. Hostage After 9 Months

(Reuters) - A militia loyal to Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr freed an American former soldier on Saturday after holding him captive in Baghdad for nine months.

The American, identified as Randy Michaels, was shown on television in a U.S. military uniform with no insignia, flanked by two members of parliament from Sadr's movement, including the parliament's first deputy speaker.

He was handed over to the United Nations mission in Baghdad, which transferred him to the U.S. embassy. Washington confirmed he was a U.S. citizen but released no further details.

In brief remarks to Iraqi journalists hastily convened to witness his release, Michaels said he had deployed to Iraq in 2003 and initially served there as a soldier for 15 months.


Mikulski Becomes Longest Serving Woman in Congress

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is now the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress.

Mikulski, a Democrat, reached the milestone on Saturday. She is scheduled to be honored on the Senate floor on Wednesday after serving more than 35 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Mikulski, 75, won a U.S. House seat in 1976. The popular senator was re-elected four times in a heavily Democratic Maryland district.


Smoking Slovak Children Burn Down Castle

(Reuters) - Two Slovak children were suspected of burning down a large gothic castle in eastern Slovakia when their experimentation with smoking went wrong, police said on Sunday.

Police were investigating two boys on suspicion that they set grass at the foot of the Krasna Horka castle on fire on Saturday when they tried to light up cigarettes, said Jana Mesarova, police spokeswoman for the eastern Slovak region of Kosice. Children under the age of 15 cannot be prosecuted in Slovakia.

"A unit sent to the site found that two local boys aged 11 and 12 were trying to light up a cigarette and because of careless use of safety matches, they set grass at the castle hill on fire," Mesarova said.

The castle subsequently caught fire and emergency services deployed 84 firefighters to the scene.

Gay Divorce Case Heading to Md.'s Highest Court

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Maryland's highest court is scheduled to hear a case that could set a statewide precedent for same-sex divorce even before a gay marriage law takes effect.

The Baltimore Sun reports Maryland's Court of Appeals will hear the case next month of Jessica Port and Virginia Anne Cowan. The women were married in a California courthouse in 2008 when gay marriage was legal and returned home to Washington.

Two years later, Port filed for divorce in Maryland where she bought a home. A Prince George's County judge denied the divorce petition saying the women's marriage wasn't valid.

A few other same-sex divorces have been granted in Maryland. Judges in Baltimore and Prince George's and Calvert counties have granted divorces.

A ruling by Maryland's highest court could set a statewide standard.


Field Notes Observations and Reflections on Legislative Activities By Delegate Michael A. McDermott

Field Notes
Observations and Reflections on Legislative Activities
By Delegate Michael A. McDermott
Week 10 March 12-16, 2012
Monday Afternoon Hearing on HJ-12
A bill I have worked which would allow for a House Resolution to be adopted that condemns certain sections (1021 and 1022) of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act as being vague and potentially limiting Habeas Corpus for American citizens by authorizing detention of combatants who may be American citizens under the Rules of War. This means no right to a trial or attorney and unlimited detention until the suspension or resolution of hostilities in which our country is engaged. This is a hot button issue for many libertarians and those, like me, who get very concerned about provisions in the law giving unlimited powers to the Executive Branch in certain areas. These types of actions were taken during the Civil War (against Maryland legislators, ironically, and during WWII against Japanese Americans). The committee was almost non-existent when I presented the resolution (1-R and 5-D’s). I will wait and see if they vote it out to the floor for a full review.
Monday Evening Session
An unusual debate erupted on the floor during a Second Reader for SJ-3 which would provide significant raises (9%) to our judicial salaries. It seemed to take forever to even get a definitive date certain as to when the measure had to be adopted before an automatic raise took effect. It was embarrassing to see folks who could not count to “50” on a calendar. An amendment was offered to reject the raises on their face, but this was shot down. There will no doubt be greater debate tomorrow.
Veteran’s Support Plate Betrayed
HB-541 was voted down Monday afternoon in the Environmental Matters Committee when Chairman McIntosh brought the matter up when two of the supporting veterans of the committee were not present for the vote and one of the delegates backed away from her original support (a big no-no in the General Assembly). What a shame when all of the funds garnered from these registration plates would have gone to Maryland wounded vets. Currently, there is no money available for our veterans in our treasury. Simply a disgrace!

Tuesday Morning Session
Second Reader, Third Reader
Debated Bills:
HB-226 received quite a bit of attention. The bill will allow people, who are technically citizens of the United States, to register to vote in Maryland even though they have never lived in the United States, much less Maryland. It sounds crazy, but we were told there are people who have never lived in the US that we should allow to vote in our state since they are US citizens. They tried to spin this as a military friendly bill, but that argument was blown up on the floor. In spite of the arguments, it passed 84-52.
The debate on HB-366 continued on Third Reader this morning, but it was clear that the fix was in. I made a final plea for deference to local sovereignty in regulations on fire sprinklers, but this was rejected. With full knowledge of the costs associated for a home owner wishing to buy a new home (increase from $5,000 to $20,000), the House passed the measure along party lines with a vote of 93-43. We have truly become a “nanny state” where all decisions are going to be approved and made by government if we do not change the make-up in the myopic General Assembly. If you want a system, buy it, but don’t demand it of your neighbor. It will impact building permits and take many out of a struggling housing market.
SJ-3 was one of the most egregious bills as it relates to process that many have ever seen in the House. The bill deals with proposed salary raises for judges. They would receive a $14,000.00 raise under this proposal at a time when our state is hurting, and our people are suffering. Many spoke out against these raises occurring during these economic times where budgets are dwindling. The problem with the bill is a matter of timing. The bill was held up by leadership in the Senate and the House until the last few days before the raises would become automatic. Since the Senate voted to give the raises in their bill, if we alter their bill, they stated they would have a hard time getting it passed with any alterations. If we failed to pass the bill as is, the Judicial Compensation Committee recommendations would take effect automatically. That would provide judges with a $29,000.00 raise. SJ-3 would provide a $14,000.00 raise instead. So…if the bill is voted down and sent back to the Senate, their failure to act would double the raise. If we vote the bill as presented, we consent to a significant raise as presented. We attempted to amend the bill to a 0% raise (Monday evening) and then a 1% raise this morning. Both amendments were rejected. It passed on a vote of 84-57. I voted, with many others, on principle to strike the bill down and send it back to the Senate. Our judges deserve due consideration, as do all of our employees. To separate them for a raise under these circumstances is over the top and a tough sell to the folks back home. It was intentionally brought out at the ninth hour so we would not have time to work out a compromise bill with both chambers. This was a disgraceful way to run a railroad.

Press Conference on the Alternative Budget
The Republican Caucus held a press conference immediately following session to present our plan for the 2012-13 Budget. Our plan calls for no increase in taxes or fees, increases some spending areas relative to education, and provides for a 2% salary increase for state employees. The plan calls for level funding based on last year’s spending. The highlights and comparisons with the O’Malley-Brown budget are brought out with clear comparisons offered. We are asking the state to live within its means just as the state is asking our families to get by with less. We will be attempting to amend the O’Malley-Brown Budget as the process rolls on to adoption.

Judiciary Committee Hearings, Tuesday
Today is Sex Offender Day…hearing about the need to enhance penalties, and hearing from Sex Offenders that we are too hard on them…HB-776 seeks to create a crime called Statutory Sexual Contact which would involve intercourse with a female victim who was 14 or 15 and the defendant is 4 years to 10 years older than the victim. The bill would also create and utilize a “Non-Public Registry” that would be off-line to the public. This may have some merit if the Non-Public Registry is utilized following the offenders entry in the Public Registry for a certain period of time. HB-942 seeks to clarify sex offender registration requirements to eliminate the crime of Kidnapping from the registration requirement if there is no sexual offense attached. The trial judge would determine from the facts at sentencing whether or not a convicted person would be required to register as a Sex Offender. HB-611 would prohibit an attorney from knowingly receiving drug money to secure their representation of a defendant in a court of law. HB-667 would limit the total number of diminution credits for inmates who have committed a crime of violence or for a sentence qualifying a person for life time Sex Offender Registration. The bill makes the case for these changes due to an extensive use of these credits which often result in persons being released very early from their sentences.HB-1086 would require an inmate to lose their diminution credits for being found in possession of a cell phone. HB-656 seeks to clarify the way that Good Conduct Credits are applied to those incarcerated for a crime of violence. HB-1300 alters the definition of “victim” when it involves Human Trafficking to insure that victims have access to victim services and compensation. Many of these victims are often charged as prostitutes and other nuisance crimes as a result of their being trafficked by an offender. HB-1351 would prohibit Registered Sex Offenders from participating in any Halloween activities of any kind. It would even prohibit taking your own children trick or treating as a supervised activity. HB-591 would allow community based organizations to prohibit registered sex offenders from coming onto their premises. There were actually several sex offenders who came in to testify in an effort to limit the damage some of these bills would cause to their lives. It is too bad they did not have the same diligence with their liberty when they were committing their crimes that landed them on the registry in the first place. HB-664 would enhance penalties against a person who commits a violent act in the presence of a child. It provides certain provisions limiting the spousal privilege from testifying against their spouse in court for a violation of this law. It clearly seeks to provide some protection for minors being exposed to damaging domestic violence.
HB-1292 seeks to modify the statute dealing with expungements of criminal records. It seeks to separate offenses one is charged with and not keep them bound together as a single unit. Current law prohibits separating these charges for the purposes of expungement. HB-1293 seeks to enhance the penalty for the crime of Child Kidnapping to a 20 year felony. It is currently a 10-year misdemeanor. It is primarily targeting Child Trafficking charges where young women are being forced into prostitution. It makes sense to enhance these penalties since Human Trafficking in Maryland is already a felony.
Wednesday Morning Session
Second Reader bills offered and the scheduling of Third Reader bills.
Judiciary Hearings Conducted on Wednesday
HB-1326 would increase the fees for performing a marriage ceremony in Harford County and would allow the increase revenue to be applied to support the Harford County Historical Society. HB-1120 would mandate certain actions by law enforcement agencies in the event of a missing child report. Most deal with reporting requirements to the State Clearing House for Missing Children and also appears to mandate certain coordinated searches by volunteers. This bill is titled Phylicia’s Law and was named in memory of Phylicia Barnes who was a missing 17 year old from Baltimore City whose body was later found at the Conawingo Dam. HB-1330 would require background checks of all child care providers who are informal care providers and not covered under current law. HB-1074 would make strangulation of a person a First Degree Assault. Currently an assault of this nature would be considered a Second Degree Assault punishable by up to 10-years. The First Degree charge carries up to a 25-year sentence.HB-1102 would create a civil penalty for a failure to report suspected Child Abuse. The penalty could reach up to $100,000.00 and would be enforced by the Attorney General. HB-999 is a bill I sponsored which would apply criminal penalties to the law requiring the reporting of suspected Child Abuse. Current law does not ascribe a penalty for those who knowingly fail to report abuse or neglect against a child. HB-1067 is very similar to HB-999 and seeks to put teeth into the current law by creating a misdemeanor with a fine for a failure to report. HB-1020 would create an Animal Abuse Registry to be maintained by the State Police where people convicted of Animal Abuse would be required to register in similar fashion to a Sex Offender. I think this is an over reach of government, although an off-line list available for review by those in the pet selling, sheltering, or adoption business may be appropriate.
Thursday Morning Session
The House welcomed the Ambassador from the island nation of Grenada, the Hon. Gillian Bristol who shared greetings with us from Grenada and spoke of economic development opportunities with her country and tourism.
Second Reader, Third Reader
HB-650 was the only bill that received any debate on the day. The bill allows for inmates who successfully complete a GED program to receive up to 60-diminutive credits on their sentence (60-days). Violent offenders do not qualify for the credits. I think it is a good bill and helps with focusing inmates on establishing certain goals and gaining better employment opportunities when they are released so they might not recidivate. I have to say, most republicans went the other way on this one, but I am willing to work with corrections officials to try reforms they recommend as was the case with this bill. The final vote count was 81-54.

Judiciary Committee Hearings Conducted Thursday
HB-1386 seeks to raise certain fees associated with the Register of Wills Office. In most cases, the fees would increase by 50%. The stated reason was the fact that the fees have not been increased in 25 years. I have never found the reason of “time” passing to be a good reason for raising a fee or a tax. The same holds true here. HB-1242addresses restitution issues in cases involving Identity Fraud crimes. The bill seeks to help with the restoration of victim’s identities and provides for restitution through the help of the Attorney General’s Office. HB-1338 would make it a 5-year misdemeanor to attempt to flee and allude a police officer in a marked vehicle and further clarifies that a person cannot flee or allude an unmarked police vehicle under specified conditions and warnings.
Ava’s Law HB-1334
A hearing was conducted on Ava’s Law which seeks to enhance the penalty for causing a life threatening injury with a motor vehicle while under the influence of illegal drugs. The current penalty is only 2-years and this bill would bring it up to 3-years which is the same penalty as someone who is under the influence of alcohol. Ava’s father, George Del Ricco came with Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Ogelsby and offered testimony about the accident that nearly claimed the life of his wife and 18-month old child. The bill will also be heard in the Senate next week as a Cross Filed bill by Senator Jacobs.
The hearing begins at 0036:42
A Call for Independent Audits, HB-1328
I had a bill hearing in the Appropriations Committee today where I introduced HB-1328 and called upon the committee members to pass the bill which would require the state to conduct independent audits by hiring outside contractors who would be paid a percentage based upon their saving the state money and finding hidden, forgotten, misplaced, or otherwise miss allocated funds. This concept is already employed in 8-states across the country. The hearingbegins at 0251:18
A Bill in Support of the Hudson Family, HB-1349
I had a second bill hearing in Appropriations to seek redress and attorney’s fee compensation from the State of MD for the actions taken by the University of MD School of Law Clinic against the Hudson farm family who live in Worcester County. The law would require the University to pay for attorney fees up to $500,000.00 out of their appropriated budget funds in support of the Hudson’s efforts to defend themselves against a suit filed by the law clinic on behalf of the New York based Waterkeeper organization. The hearing begins at 0302:09
Wicomico County Elected School Board Straw Ballot Question
The hearing for HB-966 was held with no opposition in the Ways and Means Committee today. The bill simply asks that a straw poll question be placed on the upcoming November ballot asking the voters of Wicomico County if they would prefer an elected school board over the current Governor appointed school board. The bill was bogged down last year with changes which left the language of the bill very confusing. This bill is opposed by Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt but the request came to the delegation from the Wicomico County Council following a series of public hearings on the matter. The hearing begins at 0036:36

Eastern Shore Delegation Meeting, Friday
We were visited by the leadership of Chesapeake College and Wor-Wic Community College, President Barbara Viniar and President Ray Hoy. They expressed their concerns over the potential transfer of teacher retirement funds to the counties and asked that this be stopped or modified so as not to adversely impact the counties. Dr Bernard Sadusky, the interim Maryland Superintendent of Schools. He spoke on some of the educational reforms currently ongoing in our public schools. This is the third phase of these reforms. The superintendent also spoke of fiscal issues facing public schools and the need for a system of uniform accountability which treats all teachers across the state equally.

Friday Morning Session
Second Reader, Third Reader
There were no debates on any of the Third Reader bills, and only two of the bills received any opposition. HB-1empowers county governments to require apartment or condominium owners of more than 10-units to participate in recycling. The other bill was HB-493 which creates a Study Group to address the needs of Apprenticeship programs in the state. Some thought this was a “union” bill although it was supported by non-union trades at the hearing. Both bills passed easily.
Bill Hearing in Ways and Means on Slot Machine Tampering
The Hearing on HB-257 was held on Friday afternoon. It was quick and clean with no one in opposition. The bill merely seeks to place Lottery Video Terminals under the statute which governs tampering with computers.

Senate Action
This past week was occupied by passing the budget in the senate. This included a number of tax and fee increases along with transfers of Teacher Pension responsibilities to the counties. Here is a few of the bills that will cost tax payers millions:
SB-523 Raises Income Tax rates for everyone making $3000.00 or more. Plus, the state was so successful driving millionaires out of Maryland last time, they now have a “special” new tax rate for “Half-millionaires” (those making more than $500,000.00 per year). I suspect you will see fewer of them in the near future as well. SB-848 will allow counties like Wicomico to bypass any Revenue Caps in place in order to fund their Board of Education Budgets. This is a real slap at the 7-counties that have citizen mandated Revenue Caps in place. SB-150 and SB-152 are the actual budget which increases spending a billion beyond last years budget.
Coming Up in the House Next Week...
The House will be reviewing and voting on various aspects of the Senate’s Budget proposals and will have an extended week as we work through next weekend. With all of these proposed tax and fee increases, next week promises to be one fight to the next.