Weakened IWIF bill still meets its demise

A bill that could have moved the quasi-public Injured Workers Insurance Fund further from the cash-strapped state’s coffers quietly met its end Monday night in the House of Delegates.

Originally, the bill fit in with the governor’s budget proposal – the gov wanted to take $20 million from IWIF to help balance his budget and IWIF in turn wanted the $20 million to count as a repayment of the state’s initial investment in the insurer more than 90 years ago and a prepayment of the premium tax it would have to pay.

But the General Assembly sliced the proposed transfer from the budget and the companion legislation became largely moot. Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, said he wanted to water the bill down to a study of how to move IWIF further from state control. The fund is a quasi-state agency and is overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the governor.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, acquiesced to a study proposal on some counts, but wanted to change the name of IWIF to the Chesapeake Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. and make its employees exempt from state-mandated furloughs.

Middleton’s bill passed the Senate, but in the tail end of the House’s session last night, Davis asked that the bill be special ordered – or taken up later – effectively sending out into the legislative ether, not to be voted on by the House.

Running out the clock in the House

Normally the final minutes of Maryland legislative sessions sound something like a speed reading contest between the Senate President and Speaker of the House.

With hundreds of bills to push through in the final day and never enough time to get to them all, they take them up rapid fire, repeating a barely understandable string of standard commands. It goes something like: “House bill 272 is on second reading, all in favor say aye, those opposed, say nay, the bill is ordered printed for third reading, motion to suspend the rules for two readings in one day, all in favor say aye those opposed say nay, motion is adopted, House bill 272 is on third reading for final passage, the clerk will take the call …”

This is done dozens of time, up until midnight, when they’re legally required to stop and take nine months off to recover. Or at least they usually go right up until midnight.

The House of Delegates on Monday found itself without legislation for most of the final 10 minutes. Not one to upset tradition, Speaker Mike Busch — a record-setting running back at Temple University — found ways to run out the clock.

They thanked their committee staffers and the speaker’s staff. They thanked the state troopers who guard the chamber, one by one. The bomb-sniffing dog, who drew the loudest applause. The amendment drafters. The legislative budget and policy analysts.

Then they took a quick break to pass an update to toughen the sex offender restrictions in Jessica’s Law.

And then back to the introductions – a delegate’s intern. A husband. A wife. A delegate’s intern and his girlfriend. At some point, the Baltimore County delegation launched a remote control helicopter from their territory on the House floor.

Finally – mercifully for some – the digital clocks on the chamber’s voting boards struck midnight, and Busch’s gavel hammered home for the last time in 2010.

“”I wish you all a safe and happy interim, and I hope to see you all next year,” he said.

Heritage tax credit passes House

A $10 million tax credit program for the rehabilitation of historic structures passed the House of Delegates Friday without any debate and appears set to move quickly through the Senate on Saturday.

The Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit would be worth 20 percent the redevelopment costs of historic structures and, under the overhaul being pushed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, would have $1 million carved out for newer structures in “Main Street” areas.

The credit has been a key piece of O’Malley’s legislative agenda, which has focused heavily on job creation and stimulating an economic recovery in Maryland.

After spending nearly three months with the legislation, the House approved the bill, HB 475, with a 113-26 vote.

In an effort to keep the process moving, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee met on the bill before it had been officially referred to them. (B&T held a hearing on HB 475′s companion bill earlier this session and was briefed on the House changes on Thursday.)

There was a brief discussion on a potential amendment, but any thought of changing the bill substantially was abandoned so as not to derail its passage with only two working days left for lawmakers. The committee voted to accept the bill “in concept” and it could make its way to the Senate floor Saturday.

“If we don’t pass a bill, this program goes away,” said Sen. James N. Robey, D-Howard. “We can’t let it go away. It’s too important.”

The Maryland Department of Planning estimates every $1 of tax credit has an economic impact of $8.53, and every $1 million in credits creates 72 jobs.

O’Malley has tried unsuccessfully for the last two years to push through a multi-year extension of the program. Lawmakers, favoring a more cautious fiscal approach, have given the governor smaller, one-year appropriations instead.

Md. House passes cell phone driving ban

The House of Delegates on Friday passed legislation that will bar drivers in Maryland from using hand-held cell phones.

The bill, which was already passed in the same form by the Senate, now heads to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk for his signature. It would make talking on a hand-held cell phone a secondary offense, meaning it would have to accompany a more serious offense in order to be enforced. It would carry a $40 fine on the first offense, and $100 on the second.

“Three of 10 crashes in our state and every state come as a result of distracted driving and all of those come with a cost,” said Del. Bill Bronrott, D-Montgomery.

Bronrott, coincidentally, announced his upcoming retirement from the General Assembly yesterday to take a new job in Washington, as deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The House voted 125-14 on the measure, which squeaked through the Senate last month, 24-23.

The bill faced a series of eight amendments Friday, all of them offered by Del. Michael D. Smiegel, R-Upper Shore, and all of them defeated.

Smiegel’s proposals ranged from allowing state snow plow drivers to use their phones, to diluting the bill to a public awareness campaign on the dangers of distracted driving.

He called the bill “overreaching and unnecessary.”

“They do all kinds of crazy things in a car,” Smiegel said after recounting a story about passing a driver who was eating a crab while behind the wheel. “We’re not outlawing all that.”

But the bill’s supporters, who hailed from both parties, applauded the ban as an important safety measure as cell phones grow more complex with more features to tempt their owners.

“We all know people are multitasking. They’re not just making phone calls. They’re multitasking as they drive down the road and our kids are doing it, too,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City.

Banking local bill short on time

The bill that would help small, local banks win more state banking contracts is still alive in these waning days of the legislative session, but time is running short.

Del. Bill Frick, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday the focus of the bill is still the same, but its mechanics had changed. Originally, HB 1325 would have given local banks a pricing preference when bidding on state contracts. Now, Frick said, it would require the treasurer to consider whether a bank is local bank when reviewing bids.

“The goal for me was to move the business off Wall Street and into local banks,” said Frick, D-Montgomery. “Bank of America is going to invest their money in Dubai. Sandy Spring Bank is going to invest their money in Maryland.”

Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, said the bill is still being worked on by his subcommittee and is in much better shape that it was when originally submitted. But Morhaim wouldn’t hazard a guess regarding the bill’s prospects.

The legislature wraps up its 90-day session on Monday and for Frick’s bill to pass, it would have to come before the House of Delegates twice and the Senate three times — and survive committee votes in both chambers.

O’Malley pushes for boost to rehab tax credit

After watching the legislature trim the guaranteed funds for the Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit, Gov. Martin O’Malley is pressing for the funding to the popular program to be doubled.

The governor included an extra $5 million appropriation for the program in his supplemental budget, which will face the scalpel-wielding budget conference committee this week.

O’Malley had sought $50 million over three years – $20 million in fiscal 2011 and $15 million each in the two following years.

But, lawmakers opted instead for a $5 million appropriation in 2011, a plan the Senate and House of Delegates appear to agree on. The credit would be back up for annual appropriation from the governor and subject to cuts from the General Assembly.

State delegate to UMd. law clinic: “We’ll be watching”

Lawmakers took their foot off the throat of the University of Maryland’s environmental law clinic last night, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of this issue.

After law students filed a suit against a chicken farm on the Eastern shore and the poultry giant Perdue, lawmakers amended the state operating budget to tie funding for the clinic to a requirement that the clinic disclose its client list.

The Senate wanted to withhold $250,000; the House, $500,000. The House amended its budget on the floor last week to take out the funding’s link to the reporting requirement. And Tuesday night, at a conference committee meeting on the budget, the Senate agreed to go with the House.

“We thought that was a fair approach that achieved our goals without the confusion of the initial Senate proposal,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and a member of the Senate’s negotiating team.

Madaleno said the Senate wanted to “understand what the law clinics are doing, to appreciate what their role is.”

Del. Norman Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an Eastern Shore Democrat, said the law clinics actions were “prosecutorial.”

“My goal was purely to say the clinic is an instructional tool,” he said. “Any kind of case they take should provide students with experience on all sides of it. I think what they did with the environmental law clinic was one-sided.”

Asked if he thought the law school had gotten the message, Conway said yes.

But, he added sternly: “We’ll be watching.”

Compare that with what law school Dean Phoebe A. Haddon said last month: “The moment you attach a requirement of reporting to money, you’re saying, ‘We’ll be watching you.’ ”

She’s right. The lawmakers will be watching.

Md. legislature exempts Lockheed training center from sales tax

With Maryland locked in a battle to land the headquarters of Northop Grumman Corp., state lawmakers were careful Tuesday to look favorably on the defense giant’s biggest competitor – Bethesda resident Lockheed Martin Corp.

The Senate voted 40-6 on H.B. 855, which exempts corporate lodging facilities from the state’s 6 percent sales and use tax. Lockheed’s Center for Leadership Excellence, which opened a little more than a year ago, is the only such facility in the state that meets the requirements of the bill. The $110 million, 300,000-square-foot training facility is located next to the Lockheed headquarters and employs 170 full-time workers.

Northrop’s name has bubbled up often during the legislative session when lawmakers have discussed issues that could impact the state’s image in the eyes of the business community.

“We have to remember that we are in the running for the headquarters of Northrop Grumman, although we are not sure how much in the running we are,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County.

Northop is considering a site in Rockville as it wraps up its search for a new home in the capital region.

Those in favor of the training facility bill argued such facilities, which are only open to employees of the companies that own them, shouldn’t be treated like hotels. The bill has already passed the House of Delegates.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and the head of its Senate delegation, said the Lockheed training center has increased Lockheed employees’ travel to the state by 200 percent, boosting business at local restaurants, stores and even other hotels.

“This is a good deal for the state of Maryland,” Madaleno said. “If you want to say no to this corporation, if you want to say no to other corporations, then feel free.”

Some senators took him up on that offer.

“We don’t have enough money for education, but we do have money to give to the largest corporations, that’s what this bill says,” said Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, who voted against the bill.

The final countdown

Lawmakers have six days left in Annapolis and a mountain of work to do.

(For the sake of simplicity and my sanity, I’m assuming the General Assembly will meet this week and wrap up on Monday without an extension or weekend session. The final day of the session is Monday, April 12.)

The budget will be at the forefront. The Senate passed its version in March and the House, after two nearly full days of debate, passed its version on Friday. They don’t differ much on the bottom line, but the conference committee meeting this week will have its work cut out for it to find common ground on shifting teacher pension obligations to counties and funding for a University of Maryland law clinic that has drawn the ire of many lawmakers.

Another difference between the Senate and House budgets is a $20 million transfer from the Injured Workers Insurance Fund proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Senate stripped the transfer out but the House kept it in. The transfer has big implications for the quasi-public worker’s compensation insurer of last resort, as it is tied to legislation that would move IWIF further from state control.

The state’s fiscal straits have also squeezed O’Malley’s proposed overhaul of the Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit. O’Malley wanted to essentially guarantee $50 million in funding for the program over the next three years, but legislators balked at the prospect of squirreling away such a large lump sum during these uncertain times. The tax credit appears to be pegged at $5 million in FY2011, and will be up for a yearly appropriation after that. Lawmakers are fine-tuning the bill and expect it to move this week.

Lawmakers also have to act on O’Malley’s mortgage mediation plan. The bill passed the House on March 27 and the Senate is scheduled to take it up this week. The bill would allow borrowers to request a face-to-face meeting with their lender during the foreclosure process. It would also impose a $300 foreclosure filing fee to cover the mediation costs and fund nonprofit housing counselors.

Also on the docket this week are bills that would limit the fees and interest charged by payday lenders and another that would expand the rights of Maryland wineries and order a study on the direct shipment of wine from wineries to consumers.

Impeachment? What impeachment?

One day after the House of Delegates was consumed with an attempt to impeach Attorney General Doug Gansler, the measure slipped by during a House floor session Thursday morning without a mention.

The impeachment articles introduced by Del. Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, were referred yesterday to the House Judiciary Committee, which voted them down 14-6 after a short hearing at which Dwyer refused to discuss why he wants to remove Gansler from office.

Dwyer said yesterday before the hearing that he had prepared a petition to force the bill out of committee, but such an action only applies to bills that haven’t been voted by a committee. Instead, he would have to make a motion to bring the bill to the House floor over the objection of the committee. Such a motion would require 71 votes. With Dwyer carrying only 39 votes in an attempt to keep the impeachment on the House floor yesterday – 101 delegates voted to send it to committee – collecting 32 more votes today was unlikely, if not impossible.

So when the Judiciary Committee’s report came up, the impeachment resolution slipped by without a word from anyone.