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Gov. signs 163 bills, vows to pass septic, wind legislation

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law restrictions on businesses’ use of credit reports in hiring employees and a framework for a public health care exchange on Tuesday, the day after lawmakers put the finishing touches on some of the biggest legislation of 2011.

“Nothing that was ready for prime time did not get done,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said at a ceremony where 163 bills were signed.

On Monday, the final day of their 90-day session, lawmakers approved subsidies for struggling horse tracks and a venture capital fund that will invest at least $70 million in small, high-tech Maryland companies, both top priorities for O’Malley. The General Assembly also passed a 50-percent alcohol sales tax increase to boost school construction and mental health initiatives.

That legislation will have to wait weeks for the governor’s signature, but other top O’Malley initiatives will have to wait much longer.

Lawmakers balked at his attempt to limit the spread of septic systems to curb sprawl and cut pollution runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, and his plan to spur development of an offshore wind energy farm.

“We’re on a journey here, folks,” O’Malley said. “There are issues like renewable energy and the manner in which we use the land and the air and the water resources of this finite space. And those issues aren’t going away, but neither are we.”

Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, said the legislature has just begun exploring the issues, which are all but certain to return. The General Assembly will reconvene in the fall to reshape congressional districts and then in January for the 2012 session.

“We’re going to get there. It has to be done,” Miller said of the offshore wind initiative. “Everything else that needed to happen, every other signature item, got passed. It was a very successful session.”

Among those signature items were O’Malley’s health care bills. One set signed Tuesday will bring the state’s health care laws into compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the formal name of the federal health reform law, while the others will outline the public health care exchange for individuals and small businesses.

The state has already been awarded a $1 million grant to plan the exchange and $6 million for some information technology components, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the state’s health secretary.

Budget-cutting deals in Washington have chipped away at the funding for the health care overhaul, but Sharfstein said the cuts have not affected the funds Maryland needs to get its exchange up and running by Jan. 1, 2014.

“Obviously there are people who don’t want to see the Affordable Care Act implemented, but in Maryland we’re trying to take advantage of a great opportunity to move our health care system forward,” Sharfstein said.

Maryland’s exchange would rate health policies based on price and quality and determine which individuals and companies would receive tax credits and other subsidies.

The credit check law, which takes effect Oct. 1, would bar employers from pulling credit histories when hiring for most positions. It would, however, allow for the use of credit checks by federally insured financial institutions and investment advisors, and companies that are hiring for managerial jobs, jobs that have expense accounts or corporate credit cards, and positions that have fiduciary responsibilities or access to trade secrets or personal information.

“We preserved the idea that having bad credit is not an indication that you’re going to be a bad employee, you’re going to steal, or you’re going to do something else nefarious,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery.

Fines for violating the law — $500 for the first offense and $2,500 after that — will be paid to the person whose credit history was misused and would be eligible for an administrative appeal.

Similar legislation failed last year under heavy lobbying from business interests in Annapolis.

“We’re going to be fifth state in the country to pass this legislation, and I don’t think we’ll be the last,” Reznik said.

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