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Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

Curbing heroin at top of bipartisan legislative agenda

ANNAPOLIS — Legislative leaders, Democrat and Republican, announced a package of bills that represents what they said is a collective agenda for the balance of the 90-day General Assembly session.

The legislation is part of a package of nine bills that a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House of Delegates and the Senate say will make up the core of their legislative agenda for the 2015 session. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Tuesday that most of the bills on the agenda have strong support in both chambers of the legislature.

“This is about government at its best, where people from both parties, all political persuasions come together,” Miller said. “Hopefully we have a consensus on these bills, which means they’re going to pass.”

The set of legislative priorities appears to be the appetizer for what will be a meatier announcement Thursday that is expected to contain bills based on recommendations from a commission established to study the business and tax climate in Maryland.

Many of the bills in the package announced Tuesday were so new that copies of the actual legislation were not available.

Three bills would create new or codify existing commissions and task forces.

The biggest of these is an Opioid Use Disorder Consortium that will study and make recommendations for a statewide strategy to battle a growing heroin problem in the state.

“There is a heroin epidemic and it’s time that we act on it and we can’t act upon it any quicker that right now,” said Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County.

Klausmeier said the legislation is modeled after a similar effort in Colorado and will include state health officials, law enforcement, state’s attorneys and others.

“We are going to get a plan just as they did in Colorado and see if we can’t wipe out and stamp out the heroin addictions,” Klausmeier.

A companion bill would require insurance companies to cover pain medications that are less susceptible to abuse.

The announcement Tuesday by legislators comes a week after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. announced his 10-point agenda during his State of the State Speech. Hogan said then that he would issue an executive order as part of his effort to address the heroin problem.

Another bill, Senate Bill 602, would create a Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council to collect date for ways to reduce spending on correctional services and use the savings on other public safety and recidivism programs.

Lawmakers also want to give the state parole commission more leeway in releasing offenders over the age of 65 or who suffer from a debilitating physical or mental condition. House Bill 338 would allow the commission to review and release older or infirm prisoners who are determined to no longer be a threat. An identical bill has been filed in the Senate.

“In essence, we have individuals who are sitting in prison who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s that are in prison, some of them for nonviolent offenses that may have been on mandatory sentencing and so forth, that quite frankly are costing our citizens a good deal of money and are not a threat to public safety,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Finally, persons convicted of drunken driving could be subject to civil penalties if they are found to have caused an injury or death while they were driving under the influence.

Senate Bill 605, sponsored by Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, would allow a finder of fact to determine that a driver acted with malice if they injure or kill someone while driving with a blood alcohol level that is twice the legal limit or are driving on a suspended or revoked license or had a prior related conviction or probation before judgement within the last five years.

“It’s an issue I think the civil justice system has a role to play in stopping the scourge of drunk drivers,” said Zirkin.