- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate yesterday approved a $25 billion state budget after stripping from a companion bill a provision for a property-tax cut that had been added by House Democratic leaders.

The Democrat-controlled Senate unanimously approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s budget, which now will go to a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.

In a companion bill, House leaders tried to repeal a 4.8 percent property-tax increase adopted in 2003 by the Board of Public Works.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday touted the importance of cutting the property tax, saying that increasing the tax was irresponsible.

“People don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions,” the Anne Arundel County Democrat said. “It’s now for them to explain when they get back home, not for me.”

The Board of Public Works consists of Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, and Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both Democrats.

According to state law, property taxes are collected to cover the cost of debt service on state bond issues. But previous administrations for years had used the general fund to subsidize a lower property-tax rate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, yesterday said lawmakers could not justify cutting pay increases for state workers and reducing the property tax.

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris said his chamber rejected the proposed tax cut because House Democrats were posturing after trying to levy a $670 million increase in sales and income taxes last year.

“I don’t think people are going to believe that Democrats are the tax cutters,” said Mr. Harris, Baltimore County Republican. “And I think the Senate agreed that it was just window dressing.”

The companion bill, an addendum to the governor’s budget, will go to a separate conference committee.

Meanwhile, the House yesterday included nearly $130 million in additional money for school construction in 21 jurisdictions — including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and the city of Baltimore.

“Every county executive and local official that came down to Annapolis to talk to me identified school construction as the greatest unmet need,” Mr. Busch said. “I think this plan is responsive to those needs.”

The House capital budget bill still must be reconciled with the Senate version.

Driving recklessly or while under the influence of alcohol would get a lot more costly in Maryland under a bill approved by the Senate yesterday.

In addition to paying the usual fines and court costs, motorists convicted of traffic violations under a bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat, would be assessed new penalties that could add as much as $900 to the bill for people convicted of drunken driving, the most expensive infraction.

Local police departments, emergency response agencies and fire departments would get 25 percent of the money raised by the new penalties, with the rest going to the state’s transportation fund.

The bill passed on a 30-17 vote over the objections of some senators who thought the new penalties are excessive. It now goes to the House of Delegates, where a similar bill is awaiting a committee vote.

Mr. Garagiola said the House committee has been holding up action to see what the Senate would do with the bill, and he hopes the Environmental Matters Committee now will pass the bill.

“The idea here … is to provide a financial deterrent,” he said.

If the bill becomes law, motorists could collect up to five points on their driving records without having to pay anything other than the usual fines and any court costs that would result if they challenged a moving violation. For each point over five, drivers would pay $50 a year for three years into the new fund. Convictions for driving drunk or under the influence of alcohol would result in an assessment of $300 a year for three years.

The Senate yesterday also approved Mr. Ehrlich’s bills that would tighten rules governing young drivers, including loss of license for having any alcohol in their blood while driving. Bills in the package also would lengthen the period for driving under a learner’s permit and prohibit novice drivers from driving with other young people in their cars.

The House also has passed the governor’s young driver bills, but differences must be settled before the legislation can be sent to Mr. Ehrlich for his signature.

The House has approved a bill outlining a funding formula for the planned InterCounty Connector (ICC) Highway project.

Under the bill approved Monday, the construction cost would be covered by $265 million in general funds and $750 million in bonds. The bonds would be repaid with federal highway funds.

The ICC would connect Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.

The House has approved legislation inspired by the Laci Peterson case in California.

The bill would make the murder or manslaughter of a viable fetus a crime. But the bill says that does not confer “personhood or any rights on the fetus.”

The death of a fetus by an assailant who also kills the mother would not be considered an aggravating circumstance to make the crime eligible for the death penalty.

The bill passed the House by a 108-20 vote and now goes to the Senate.

An attempt to allow criminal trials to be televised in Maryland apparently is dead for this year.

A bill that would have allowed some televising of criminal trials in circuit courts was debated briefly by the Senate on Monday night before the sponsor, Sen. John A. Gianetti Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, moved to have it sent back to the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Mr. Gianetti made his decision when it appeared the bill did not have enough support to pass the Senate. Bills that are returned to committee usually do not receive another vote.

The bill would have permitted televising of trials only if prosecutors and defense attorneys gave their permission in writing. The measure also would have allowed witnesses to have the cameras turned off while they testified.

Cameras are allowed in the state’s two appellate courts and can be used in civil trials with the consent of the parties.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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