- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Marylanders will equip their children with helmets, find gun-safety courses in all public schools, help the elderly pay for prescription drugs, be at greater risk of conviction if they drink and drive and get new protections against discrimination under measures the General Assembly approved before it adjourned Monday.

At his first of four bill signings this year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening put his signature on a total of 101 bills yesterday, most of them minor proposals dealing with local issues. Some of the more significant bills dealing with issues such as DNA testing for death-row inmates, limits on recreational crabbing and prescription drug coverage for low-income seniors will be on later signing lists.

Wendy Hamilton, national vice president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said making a blood-alcohol reading of .08 the standard for drunken driving will save lives and prevent injuries.

"You're going to get people to think more before they get behind the wheel," she said.

She said the second bill will help prosecutors get convictions for the 27 percent of Maryland motorists who refuse a breath test.

Marylanders can also expect new cars on Washington- and Baltimore-area commuter rail systems, improved parks and more land protected from development under measures Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, won to expand his Smart Growth initiative aimed at curbing suburban sprawl.

Lawmakers claim Marylanders will be safer at home, school and on highways because of the new public-safety initiatives.

Prosecutors now allowed to tell juries that a defendant charged with drunken driving refused a breath test will likely win convictions more easily, particularly against repeat offenders.

Lowering the blood-alcohol level at which a driver is considered drunken from .10 to .08 will also save lives, lawmakers say as well as keep the state from losing needed highway funds.

Those under 16 could be spared head injury or death by a new state law that will require them to wear approved helmets when riding scooters (including those without motors) or bicycles in public areas. Violators would be handed warnings and an educational brochure on helmet use.

Mr. Glendening said new laws to ban discrimination against homosexuals and to prohibit race-based traffic stops, in part by tracking data to detect the practice, are "a big step forward for inclusion and justice" for all Marylanders.

In a more than $21 billion budget that focuses most spending on the environment and education, local public schools and state universities will gain new and improved facilities.

Although Mr. Glendening and legislators advanced few measures that directly realize his vision of offering free college education to all Marylanders, the 10 percent increase in higher-education spending they approved will expand campuses and could reduce pressure to increase tuition.

Popular as such initiatives are, they didn't stop a coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers from criticizing the governor for spending too much money or at least not enough on the needs of the disabled and elderly.

Working with the governor, lawmakers crafted and found funding for a plan to make prescription drugs more affordable for low-income seniors. From 100,000 to 205,000 persons could be eligible for a 30 percent discount on medications some skimp on or forgo in favor of food or paying utility bills.

A similar coalition opposed plans pushed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to mandate gun-safety education at every grade in the state's public schools. They and most local school systems opposed the move as an unfunded mandate that could take time from academic matters. The measure was approved; however, the state school board has said it will allow parents to opt out.

The working poor also won an increase in the earned income tax credit planned to phase-in, over several years, to 5 percent.

Otherwise, Marylanders gained no new income tax relief this year.

Some fiscal conservatives say the state could be facing a $500 million deficit next year, and tax increases thereafter, with the economy slowing and a budget that taps the state surplus and leaves just $85 million above a 5 percent spending cushion in the state's reserves.

It's hard to say how many new measures might have become law had they not been caught in a logjam created by a filibuster to stop the legislature from approving a moratorium on the death penalty.

Approval was derailed in the last 15 minutes of the session when a vote tallying machine apparently malfunctioned, recording just 19 votes of an expected majority in favor.

Opponents claimed the moratorium was really a veiled attempt to abolish capital punishment.

But proponents said, for now, they are happy to have won new assurances that inmates can get DNA tests that might exonerate them.

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