- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A statewide smoking ban is nearing approval in Maryland with a Senate committee possibly approving the idea as soon as today, lawmakers said.

Momentum built after Baltimore’s decision last month to ban smoking in bars starting next year.

That vote by the state’s largest city means that by next year, more than half the state’s population will live in areas that don’t allow indoor smoking in public places.

A House committee is considering a similar statewide ban and could vote by the middle of next week.

The legislature’s ruling Democrats, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., have said there is enough support to pass the ban in both chambers.

It is not clear, however, whether lawmakers will add a provision allowing businesses to apply for an exemption because of “undue financial hardship.”

The exemption provision would let small bars allow smoking if they could prove they were losing a lot of business after banning smoking.

Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Eastern Shore Republican and a member of the House committee soon to vote on a smoking ban, said a hardship exemption could win over more lawmakers.

Her district includes areas that allow smoking as well as smoke-free Talbot County, and she said she wasn’t sure whether the ban would pass in her committee.

Turtle pardon

The House and Senate yesterday gave final approval to bills banning commercial harvesting of Diamondback terrapins.

The bills end the state’s short commercial season for terrapins, which thrive in brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay and are in decline.

The bill passed the House by a 127-10 vote. A similar version passed the Senate by a 43-2 vote.

The House and Senate will have to reconcile minor differences in the two bans before sending it to Gov. Martin O’Malley for final approval.

Truants grounded

Teenagers who skip school would lose driving privileges under a bill that passed the House yesterday.

The bill, approved by a 133-1 vote, would prohibit students with 10 or more unexcused absences in the past calendar year from getting a learner’s permit.

The state would suspend driving privileges of students who have a license and go truant more than 10 times in a year.

Students who officially have dropped out of school would not be affected.

Delegate Gerron Levi, Prince George’s Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said high truancy rates correlate with higher daytime crimes such as home invasions.

State analysts said the bill could cost several thousand dollars a year to pay for the cost of schools notifying transportation authorities about school absences.

The measure now heads to the Senate.

Death penalty stays

A bill to repeal Maryland’s death penalty failed to get enough support in a Senate committee to move forward yesterday.

The 5-5 vote by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee came after the panel rejected an amendment by Republican Sen. Alex Mooney, who was the swing vote on the measure.

Mr. Mooney’s amendment would have reserved the death penalty for someone who killed while serving a prison term.

Mr. Mooney said, “The only way to stop some people from continuing to kill is to resort to the death penalty.”

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