No more facebooking while light-railing?

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly made it illegal to write or send text messages while driving.

This year, a handful of lawmakers are looking to expand on that. One bill, sponsored by Del. James E. Malone Jr., D-Baltimore and Howard, would simply tweak the law and also make it illegal to read text messages while driving. It would carry the same penalty as writing or sending — a $500 fine.

A second bill goes further. Much further.

The Smartphone Safety Act adds light-rail and subway conductors to the mix and would make it illegal for them, along with drivers, to use smartphones for most any purpose beyond making calls.

Under the act, drivers of trains and automobiles would not be able to text or read texts, read or update social networking sites, take pictures, play video games, download content or watch videos.

So all those iPhones, Blackberries, Droids and the rest of the smartphone bunch would only be good for searching for phone numbers, making calls, listening to music and accessing a GPS feature.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 19 states have enacted text messaging bans. Six states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington — and Washington, D.C., have banned the use of handheld cellphones outright.

Unemployment insurance overhaul could face legislative pruning

The governor’s proposed changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system could be trimmed down before it moves forward through the Legislature, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Wednesday morning.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, in one of his key legislative initiatives this year, proposed altering the benefits available to unemployed Marylanders in order to qualify the state for $126.8 million from the federal government. The funds would be used to bolster the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and offset the cost of some unemployment tax breaks for businesses.

Business groups oppose the measure, preferring to take the hit this year in hopes of returning to more favorable tax rates more quickly.

“If they don’t think it helps them, why are we doing it?” said Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles.

Middleton’s committee held a hearing on the governor’s proposal Tuesday afternoon where business leaders resumed their opposition to chasing the federal money.

The changes to the benefits include altering the period during which a laid-off worker must report income, tweaking existing rules for people seeking part-time work and expanding the time during which a person can collect benefits while enrolled in job training programs.

Legislative analysts estimate the legislation would add about $20 million in yearly costs for the trust fund. The fund, which has been stressed by the high unemployment rate, now pays out about $20 million in benefits every week.

O’Malley’s legislation also includes provisions to lower the monthly interest rate on late payments from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, and to require state business regulators to work with companies on payment plans. Most businesses pay their unemployment taxes in the first quarter of the year because the taxes are assessed on the first $8,500 of an employee’s annual pay. The payment plans would allow businesses to stretch their obligation through the year.

“I see a bill moving with at least those two pieces in it,” Middleton said of the payment plans and interest rate cut.

Business leaders have also proposed a host of benefit cuts to offset the expansion of benefits and eligibility in the governor’s bill. At Tuesday’s hearing, a representative of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce suggested requiring laid-off workers to wait a week before filing for unemployment, cutting allowances for dependents, and changing the duration of benefits offered.

“There may be the opportunity for some negotiation here,” Middleton said.

“I haven’t given up hope,” he added.

The bill heads to the House Economic Matters Committee on Thursday.

Some love for sandy loam

Maryland has a state bird (1), two state sports (2,3), a state dog (4), a state flower (5) and a state song (6).

For the record, there’s also a state exercise (7), insect (8), folk dance (9), dinosaur (10) and a dozen or so other state symbols.

There is not, however, a state soil.

Del. Paul S. Stull, R-Frederick, and 11 of his colleagues in the House want to change that.

Stull introduced a bill Wednesday that would make Sassafras sandy loam the official state soil. The same measure was introduced in 2007. According to the bill, nearly half of the states in the country have adopted official state soils to show their “significant concern for soil.”

Sassafras sandy loam – fine–loamy, siliceous, semiactive, mesic Typic Hapludults if you want to get technical – covers more of Maryland than any other soil, according to the bill.

Those symbols hinted at above:

1. Baltimore Oriole

2. Jousting

3. Lacrosse

4. Chesapeake Bay Retriever

5. Black-Eyed Susan

6. Maryland, My Maryland

7. Walking

8. Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly

9. Square Dance

10. Astrodon johnstoni, a state resident 95 to 130 million years ago

The full list is available here.

Credit check bill gets Dems’ backing

A bill that would limit the businesses’ use of credit checks in making employment decisions received the support of Senate Democrats Tuesday morning, giving the measure a strong base of support as it makes its way through the halls of the Legislature.

The measure, filed as SB 110 and HB 175, would ban employers from pulling credit reports of job applicants or employees as part of making employment decisions. The bills include exceptions for jobs in certain sectors.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, announced the bills as part of his party’s agenda in the Senate this session. The credit check legislation is one of nine initiatives the party will focus on as the core of its policy agenda in 2010.

“If we’re going to pull out of this economy, we’re going to have to break down barriers that are keeping the unemployed from getting jobs,” said Sen. Michael G. Lenett, D-Montgomery, one of the bill’s cosponsors.

Groups representing business interests are likely to oppose the legislation.

A programming note: Gov. Martin O’Malley’s State of the State address has been moved … again. Originally scheduled for Wednesday, the governor’s office bumped the date back to Feb. 4 to avoid a conflict with the State of the Union address — but that’s the day Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will be sworn in as mayor of Balimore. This morning, the governor’s office announced the date has changed once more, this time to Feb. 2 at noon.

Coming up this afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee will take its first crack at the governor’s unemployment insurance overhaul plan that would make the state eligible for $126.7 million in stimulus funds and provide slight tax breaks for businesses this year. Business groups are firmly set against the changes. Stay tuned.

O’Malley to introduce full legislative agenda

Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to introduce today the slate of bills that represent his legislative priorities in 2010.

Some have already trickled out, including a job creation tax credit and changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system.

O’Malley’s full agenda is also expected to include a new step in the foreclosure process that would require borrowers and lenders to meet face-to-face during the process to determine if the borrower is eligible for a loan modification.

The job creation tax credit, worth $3,000 for every unemployed Marylander a company hires, has just begun its trip through the Legislature’s committees. O’Malley is seeking $20 million for the program.

The unemployment changes, which are aimed at capturing $126.7 million in federal funds to boost the pool of money from which benefits are paid, will get their first hearing this week.

One thing that won’t happen this week is the governor’s State of the State address, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday. It’s now on the books for Thursday at noon.

The first date conflicted with the State of the Union address, which President Obama will deliver Wednesday night.

Former state senator resigns from slots commission

Robert Neall, a former state legislator, resigned from his post on the state slots commission last week, Chairman Donald C. Fry said Friday.

Neall’s wife, Marta Harting, works for the Baltimore law firm Venable, which represents the Arundel Mills shopping mall. A developer received approval from the commission and Anne Arundel County last year to build a 4,750-machine casino in the parking lot of the mall. The plan has faced stiff local resistance, and the potential of a legal challenge prompted Neall to resign, Fry said.

“This commission has worked very hard… to try to avoid any evidence of conflicts of interest. I think out of an abundance of caution, Mr. Neall thought this was the right decision to make sooner when it wasn’t an issue than later, when obviously some people may think it would [be],” Fry said. “I think he did so at the appropriate time.”

Fry said Neall sent his resignation to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who appointed Neall to the commission.

“I haven’t heard anything with respect to a replacement,” Fry said.

Slots commissioner pushes for table games

A member of the state slots commission said Friday that now is the time to look at expanding the state’s fledgling gaming industry to allow table games at casinos to make Maryland competitive in the Mid-Atlantic gaming arms race.

“We’re running to catch these other states. They’re our competitors,” said commissioner D. Bruce Poole, a former state delegate from Washington County. “The other competitors are really outstripping us. They’re ahead of us.”

“West Virginia, the state across the river from me, has table games coming to it,” Poole said. “They’re going to have a casino. There’s no question that’s where the bright lights are.”

Chairman Donald C. Fry said Poole’s comments were “appropriate” before taking the Video Lottery Location Commission into a closed session to discuss a slate of suggested legislative changes. Adding table games would require the legislature to put a referendum on the ballot, and the voters of the state to approve it.

“It’s one I think we should look at as we go forward,” Fry said.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst retained by the commission said the addition of labor-intensive table games to Maryland casinos – none of which are operational – would have its biggest impact on employment in the industry.

“It will add incremental revenue, but most importantly, it will add a lot more jobs,” said Michael French, the analyst.

The State Lottery Agency estimates that five licensed parlors in the state will employ about 5,000.

“When we started this debate about slots, the concern was that we were going to be taking advantage of the poor… I think in a lot of ways that’s a stereotype,” Poole said. “Clearly table games will draw in people who have more economic capacity, who will spend more money not only at the casino, but also at restaurants and hotels. Fine, lets not milk the poor… but I wouldn’t mind milking the wealthy.”

Green for the gov, slots updates

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters is, as this post is being written, announcing its endorsement of Gov. Martin O’Malley in his reelection campaign.

The group, founded in 1979, focuses on environmental issues and each year grades legislators on how green their voting records are.

O’Malley already has competition in the Democratic primary — former Maryland veterans affairs Secretary George W. Owings III launched his campaign earlier this month. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is also mulling a rematch. He told The Daily Record on the opening day of the legislative session that he would make a decision in the next month or two.

O’Malley topped Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in a generation, in the 2006 election.

Later today, the state slots commission will give an update on the status of outstanding slots licenses. The commission last month tossed a proposal from the Baltimore City Entertainment Group and decided to rebid the city’s license. The commission must also find a developer for a casino near Rocky Gap.

Senators question DBED over loan fund

Tucked into the raft of economic development and job creation initiatives on the table this year in Annapolis is a relatively innocuous looking bill that would shake up a small business loan program run by the Department of Business and Economic Development.

DBED, in legislation introduced in the Senate, is shift oversight the Maryland Economic Adjustment Fund and broaden the scope of the program.

The fund was created in 1994 to give loans to small businesses – primarily defense contractors – that were negatively affected by military base closures and realignments. It was administered by a commission appointed by the DBED secretary.

“It’s a critical part of our efforts to make sure that we help small businesses grow and be successful,” said Secretary Christian Johansson.

The fund has about $450,000, but DBED is seeking up to $5 million more from the federal government.

Under the changes submitted by DBED, control of the fund would shift from the commission to the secretary or other DBED officials he appoints. The loans would also be available to a wider range of small businesses because the defense provisions would be stripped out.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee questioned taking control of the fund out of the hands of the commission, which would be required to open its meetings to the public.

Ellen Valentino, Maryland director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said after the hearing she thought the changes to the program need “to be tightened up.”

“The merit of the fund seems to be well-intentioned,” she said. “The oversight seems a little loose.”

Delegates critical of potential new mortgage rules

A handful of Maryland lawmakers Thursday questioned the push to insert a new step into the mortgage foreclosure process that would require lenders and borrowers to meet face-to-face.

The mandatory mediation is a part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s agenda this legislative session. He and state banking regulators want to force the meetings to make sure as many eligible homeowners as possible find their way to government programs to modify their loans.

Bankers are wary of the added step, saying that lending agencies are already overwhelmed by the wave of foreclosure actions and further lengthening the process won’t help either side.

“I would suggest that any time that is added to the process is just going to hurt the homeowner,” said Del. H. Wayne Norman Jr., R-Harford.

The mandatory mediation proposal, which has yet to be submitted to the Legislature as a bill, comes after a slate of stricter foreclosure rules enacted last year and as the state faces even more foreclosures as the economy continues to struggle.