- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Maryland lawmakers last night pulled off a last-minute total rewrite of a bill banning open containers of alcohol in cars, conceding that the changes and approval were done to save more than $7 million in federal highway funds needed in a tight budget year.

The bill makes having a container of alcohol with a broken seal a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. But it says that the driver cannot be prosecuted solely because a passenger possesses an open container.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend appeared before the committee to promote the bill last month and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat, testifying with her, made it clear it was a priority for him.

It was clear at that hearing that the bill, which has been defeated many times, faced real opposition.

It was revamped by amendments offered by Delegate Joseph Vallerio, Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The new measure passed on a 19-1 vote.

Delegate Donald Murphy, Baltimore and Howard Republican, said he could "never" vote for the bill and that its effect is to secure funding, not deter drinking while driving.

"It has only gotten as far as it has because people believe we're talking about [one hand] one on the wheel and one on the can, as the lieutenant governor described it," Mr. Murphy said.

"Do we qualify for the money?" Mr. Murphy asked, referring to the federal highway funds that would be jeopardized without the bill.

"Yes," a chorus of colleagues responded.

"Do we have to enforce it after we bend over and do it?" Mr. Murphy said, noting that he heard nothing from local jurisdictions that have similar measures about the number of people they've cited.

Delegate Dana Dembrow, Montgomery County Democrat, said he had opposed the bill in the past because he believed it would have a chilling effect on people taking the responsibility to be non-drinking designated drivers and because it unnecessarily took away personal freedom for someone not driving to have a drink.

"We are taking away the freedom to have a responsible alcoholic beverage, but [we're doing it for $7.7 million in federal money this year and next] and we can't afford the loss of money."

Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, Montgomery County Democrat, said a "sober individual" who is a designated driver should be able to get a drink away from anyone who might have one in the car.

Mr. Murphy said it's unfair to penalize people "based on how they pack the minivan" and even if they aren't drinking.

"It's about temptation, and you know I get tempted every day," Mr. Murphy said. "Unless you act on that temptation, you shouldn't be held liable."

Delegate Kenneth Montague, Baltimore Democrat, said the bill is an improvement over past proposals in that it recognizes "practical realities."


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