- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

RICHMOND The House of Delegates yesterday quashed an effort to raise the amount inspection stations can charge vehicle owners for safety inspections.

The yearly safety inspection is a state mandate, and right now the law caps the inspection fee at $10 per vehicle. The bill, which failed 81-12 with two abstentions, would have raised the cap to $20 per car and $30 per truck.

That set off tax opponents.

"Isn't what we're doing, increasing the taxes on the people who own automobiles in Virginia?" asked Barnie K. Day, Patrick County Democrat.

But the bill's supporters said stations lose money on inspections and raised the specter of long lines at state-run inspections stations if the bill didn't pass.

Some delegates said stations that are losing money could just go out of business, but there hasn't been a rash of station closures because stations draw repeat customers by offering inspections.

• • •

The General Assembly in effect endorsed the current Standards of Learning (SOL) system yesterday when the Senate Education and Health Committee tabled several bills that would have eased the absolute requirement that students pass the assessment tests to get the credit.

Informally dubbed the "close enough" bills, they would have required that the state find a way to give students SOL credit if they don't pass the test but come close and have good grades in the class.

• • •

The Senate Health and Education Committee passed a bill that would ease access to the morning-after pill, also called emergency contraception. They also removed the part of the bill, added by the House, that required minors to have a parent's consent.

The committee vote was 11-3.

Taken within 72 hours after sex, the pills often prevent pregnancy.

Under the bill's provisions, doctors and pharmacists could create a partnership to dispense the pills on the doctor's say-so, and the doctor could prescribe the pills over the phone without an examination, even if he isn't the regular doctor for the woman seeking the pills.

• • •

House Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr.'s Woodrow Wilson Bridge bill passed a Senate committee. The bill would keep Virginia from having to pay for cost overruns associated with Maryland's project labor agreement (PLA) on the bridge replacement. A PLA, in effect, reserves the project for contractors who use union workers, and Mr. O'Brien is concerned that could drive up costs and lead to delays. The bill passed 8-7 and now goes to the full Senate. It already passed in the House.

• • •

The more expansive version of the Northern Virginia sales-tax bill is on track again after a Senate committee added the education part that had been removed.

The House passed a bill that would ask Northern Virginia voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase, with the money going to transportation. But the Senate version is a full cent increase, with the money split between transportation and education.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, and shepherded through the Senate by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, now has a 10-year sunset for the education tax and a 35-year sunset for the transportation tax. Each half cent would raise about $110 million.

• • •

The left-lane passing bill, which would require drivers on interstates to stay to the right unless specifically passing another vehicle, failed in the Senate Transportation Committee. The state police and the Department of Motor Vehicles both said the bill was unworkable and too expensive.

• • •

Cell phone addicts will have at least one more year to talk and drive on Maryland highways without fear of being stopped by police.

The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee voted 14-7 yesterday to kill a bill that would have made it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while talking on a hand-held telephone.

Delegate John Arnick, Baltimore County Democrat, tried in vain to convince committee members that his bill would impose only minimal restrictions on hand-held cell phones, which he said are a major distraction that make highways unsafe.

"It doesn't stop anyone from calling [their] mother," he said.

He told committee members more and more drivers are buying voice activated cell phones that do not have to be held.

Some committee members argued that there is no proof that cell phones cause accidents and suggested that eating, putting on makeup and even reading while driving are more distracting.

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Baltimore Democrat, said surveys in some states have shown that cell phones are not a major distraction. She said the committee needs more information before considering a ban on them.

A Senate bill similar to Mr. Arnick's has not been voted on yet by the Judicial Proceedings Committee, but that committee has a policy of killing bills that have been rejected by a House committee.

• • •

Legislation that would make the calico cat the official state cat of Maryland was approved by the Commerce and Government Matters Committee yesterday.

Passage of the bill by a 16-3 vote with three members abstaining was a significant victory for five girls from Westernport Elementary School in Allegany County who came up with the idea and spent a lot of time collecting information on why Maryland needs a state cat and which one it should be.

The girls said the calico cat seemed to be the best choice because the color of its fur splotches of red, black and white are similar to other state symbols such as the black-eyed Susan, the Baltimore oriole, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly and the state flag.

The bill will now go to the full House for a vote, probably some time next week.

• • •

A bill aimed at encouraging more Marylanders to undergo counseling before tying the knot passed the House of Delegates.

The bill would allow jurisdictions to reduce the cost of a marriage license for couples who undergo premarital counseling.

It passed on a vote of 104-24 and now goes to the Senate.

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