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With new year, new laws take effect in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS — Power suppliers that sell electricity in Maryland will have to buy more energy from solar sources under a new law taking effect Saturday.

While most new laws passed in the 2010 legislative session already have taken effect, the new year marks the first day for others.

For example, drivers who get traffic tickets will have to ask for a trial date if they want one, and the personal property tax on the rental of heavy equipment will be replaced by a 2 percent tax on gross receipts. Waivers to Maryland’s smoking ban in bars will expire at the end of January.

The new solar energy law moves up the timetable for making solar energy part of the state’s renewable portfolio standard. Supporters say the law will help create jobs in the solar power industry while boosting the state’s use of renewable energy, but opponents contend the law will increase already high electric bills.

The change will increase the cost of residents’ electricity bills by an estimated 5 cents per month in 2011. The cost is higher, however, for many commercial ratepayers, who will pay about 66 cents per month more, according to estimates. The amount goes up each year, rising to 77 cents per month for residents and $9.57 for commercial ratepayers in 2016.

Maryland law requires the state to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, with 2 percent of that coming from solar energy.

“I’d say that we’re definitely not at the top but near the top of other states in the country in terms of encouraging use of solar,” said Kevin Lucas, clean energy program manager at the Maryland Energy Administration.

The law also increases the penalty power suppliers must pay if they don’t meet renewable portfolio standards. The penalty will increase by 5 cents per kilowatt-hour in the next two years. It will rise by 10 cents per kilowatt-hour between 2013 and 2016.

State budget analysts estimate that complying with the law will cost power suppliers about $185 million through 2016.

Another new law will eliminate automatically assigning a trial date for motorists who receive traffic tickets. Drivers who get a ticket on or after Jan. 1 will need to request a trial date within 30 days of the ticket if they want to contest the citation.

Supporters of the new law say it will increase efficiency in the courts and police departments across the state. Under the old law, motorists could avoid an automatically scheduled trial date by paying the fine a day before the trial, when it was too late to tell police officers they didn’t need to show up. That meant police officers sometimes came for trials that didn’t happen, sometimes incurring overtime expenses, even though they weren’t needed. The new law does not apply to citations issued for violations such as drunken driving that require a court appearance.

In another change in the law, businesses that rent or lease heavy equipment like skid loaders and backhoes will see a change in tax policy designed to help them spread out the payment of taxes. A personal property tax on the equipment will be replaced with a 2 percent gross receipts tax. The change, which takes effect Friday, brings Maryland in line with neighboring states that have similar tax treatment.

“I think it’s going to make rental companies have a much easier time in managing their cash flow,” said John McClelland, vice president for government affairs for the American Rental Association. “That’s something that’s very important here. It’s not going to have them subject to one enormous one-time tax that’s above their revenue line. It basically allows them to pay as they go.”