ANNAPOLIS — A freshman committee chair looking to make his mark, a legislator-turned-attorney general seeing if he still has State House sparkle and a state senator eying a congressional seat were able to celebrate Tuesday after the General Assembly wrapped up. The bills they championed this session had passed.
The legislature approved measures easing the path to divorce for couples without minor children; raising the liability caps for state, county and local governments when they injure people through negligence; rewarding and protecting individuals who blow the whistle on public contractors defrauding Maryland and its localities; and providing second chances for those who have been convicted of a minor crime.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, in his first year as Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee chair, sponsored the legislation to enable childless couples to divorce through settlement agreement, thus forgoing the state’s one-year separation requirement before terminating a marriage. If signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate Bill 472 would go into effect Oct. 1.
Zirkin also led the fight on the Senate floor and in conference with delegates to increase from $200,000 to $500,000 the liability of state, county and local governments for their injury-causing negligence — a battle that came up a little short, as the General Assembly Monday night approved a boost to $400,000. Zirkin also pressed for changing from $500,000 to $1 million the limit on county and city liability in a single claim involving multiple plaintiffs but again fell short, as the legislature settled on $800,000.
House Bills 113 and 114 amend the Local Government Tort Claims Act and Maryland Tort Claims Act, respectively. The new caps would apply to claims arising on or after Oct. 1.
Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore City, was the chief sponsor of the bills in the House.
Zirkin called the boost “progress” and vowed to continue the fight next year, when he says he will be a more polished chairman.
“The whole process was a learning experience,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said Tuesday.
A major lesson was dealing with the “sheer volume of people and issues” appearing before the committee, including the many legislators and lobbyists who approach him on all sides of all issues, he added.
“You get this unbelievable education,” Zirkin said.
False Claims Act
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who served in the General Assembly for about 28 years, said early in the session that enactment of a Maryland False Claims Act would be his top legislative priority as the state’s top lawyer.
The measure, which had failed in previous General Assembly sessions amid strong business opposition, will enable people who report fraud by state and county contractors to collect up to 25 percent of the government’s recovery. These individuals will also have legal protection against retaliation by their employer under the measure, House Bill 405.
The Maryland False Claims Act extends current law, which provides only for whistleblower claims alleging fraud against the state by healthcare providers. If signed by the governor, the law would go into effect June 1.
Frosh, who requested that the bill be introduced, lobbied for the Maryland False Claims Act before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chaired for 12 years, and the House Judiciary Committee.
“I wouldn’t say I still have a touch or ever had a touch” to get measures passed, Frosh said Tuesday, adding that he will be glad to have the fraud-prevention law.
The Maryland False Claims Act, which enables the government to collect triple damages, “deters fraud and it enables the attorney general to prosecute fraud” civilly, Frosh added.
A second chance
Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who is running for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, sponsored the Second Chance Act, which had failed in the General Assembly the past three years.
“The country is experiencing a dramatic rethinking of criminal justice policy,” Raskin, D-Montgomery, said Tuesday. “The old approach was lock ’em up and throw away the key.”
The Maryland Second Chance Act tries “to replace the old be tough on crime with the new approach of be smart on crime,” he added. “We can’t afford to throw anybody away. We need everybody to succeed and prosper.”
House Bill 244, if signed by Hogan, will permit individuals to seek court orders shielding from public view certain minor crimes for which they had completed their sentences at least three years earlier. The crimes include disorderly conduct; disturbing the peace; failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order; malicious destruction of property under $500; trespass on posted property; possessing or administering a controlled dangerous substance; use or possession with intent to use drug paraphernalia; driving without a license; driving while privilege is canceled, suspended, revoked or refused; driving while uninsured; and prostitution.
The shielded conviction would not be considered a conviction, thus enabling those individuals to honestly tell prospective employers and landlords they have not been convicted of a crime. However, law enforcement agencies and companies hiring for positions requiring criminal background checks either by statute or contract would have access to the shielded records.
The Maryland Second Chance Act would go into effect Oct. 1. Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, was the chief sponsor of the bill in the House.