- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley, focusing on public safety and health, signed measures yesterday to ban smoking in Maryland’s bars and restaurants and to strengthen penalties for child sex-offenders.

The governor, who signed 164 bills, also gave his approval to a measure that could eventually require paper voting records.

The smoking ban, which will take effect in February, was passed without exemptions for private social clubs such as the American Legion, a fact cheered by public health groups that fought hard to prevent exceptions.

The law allows bars to apply for exemptions if they can prove their businesses suffer financial hardship from the ban. Details of how the exemptions will work will be decided later by state health officials.

Bonita Pennino, the director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, described it as a momentous day for workers in bars and restaurants in Maryland.

“They are going to be protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke,” she said. “It’s a real victory for them.”

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, also signed a measure increasing penalties for child sex-offenders in Maryland. The law strengthens a statute known as “Jessica’s Law,” named for a Florida girl who was sexually abused and murdered by a convicted child sex-offender. It eliminates parole for adult sex-offenders convicted of first- and second-degree sexual assault against a child younger than 13. First-degree offenders get a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years.

Mr. O’Malley approved measures to give prosecutors more tools to go after violent gang members and to increase state payments to local police. The governor said there was no reason why a wealthy state like Maryland should be the “fourth or fifth most violent state in America.”

“We can do better and we will do better working together,” Mr. O’Malley said.

The governor also signed a bill that could eventually require paper voting records. If funded, the measure would direct state elections officials to put paper voting records in place by the next gubernatorial election. The change would likely mean a return to optical scan ballots, on which voters use a pen to mark choices on a paper ballot.

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery Democrat, said the cost would likely be more than $19 million.

“It’ll be part of the mix when we go into our budget discussions,” Mrs. Hixson said.

The voting-trail bill also includes provisions to make the voting system accessible to people with disabilities, an aspect of the bill the American Civil Liberties Union and the Maryland Disability Law Center argued to include.

Other legislation signed by Mr. O’Malley:

• Sets up a “Baby Boomer Initiative Act” to create a task force to study how to keep baby boomers engaged in work and civil life beyond traditional retirement age.

• Requires the Department of Juvenile Services to focus on delivering services on a regional basis.

• Gives the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene authority to impose a quality assessment on specified nursing facilities.

• Makes cigarettes meet a standard that renders them less of a fire hazard.

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