Friday, May 23, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) - Gov. Martin O’Malley signed two bills to bring some of the rights married couples have to unmarried couples - including gay couples - along with measures related to health and support for veterans.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat who supports creating a civil unions law that has yet to find enough support in the General Assembly, said he thinks the bills help address “inequities and unfairness” against committed couples who are not married, including gay couples.

“Without the ability to have the legal protections that say, a civil unions statute would give, then these other bills, will, I suspect, continue to come through the legislature and continue to be approved by the legislature,” Mr. O’Malley said.

One of the bills allows unmarried couples more rights to make about a dozen medical decisions for each other, if they meet certain criteria to show they are a committed couple. For example, they would have to show joint checking accounts or joint property ownership to qualify.

The other bill exempts domestic partners from paying property transfer taxes when one person dies.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the medical decisions bill, described them as “a huge step in the right direction” for equal rights for gay couples.

“Also, for the first time ever, we actually have a definition now of domestic partners in our state law,” Mr. Garagiola said.

But the bills rankled opponents of gay marriage who think legal marriage should only be recognized between a man and a woman.

Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, criticized the governor’s decision to sign the bills. Mr. Dowling said the laws put the state “on the road to becoming California East,” referring to a state that started with similar bills and later expanded beyond health care and taxation.

Mr. Dowling also said the bills’ definition of domestic partnerships “not only gives same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples a status equivalent to marriage, it also is so broad and ambiguous that it can be extended to the most casual of relationships.”

“This flies in the face of religious traditions that exalt marriage and regard it as sacramental,” Mr. Dowling said.

Mr. O’Malley also signed bills to help veterans returning from overseas. One measure is designed to help veterans get the behavioral health services. It creates a Veterans’ Behavioral Health Advisory Board to help identify gaps in services.

Another bill to help veterans expands the eligibility of the motor vehicle excise tax credit. Mr. O’Malley also signed a bill to extend the deadline for awarding the Veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts Scholarship from June 30, 2012 to June 30, 2016.

In health care, Mr. O’Malley signed a bill that requires CareFirst to provide $4 million each year to the Senior Prescription Drug Assistance Program to help seniors who pay 100 percent of their costs.

Mr. O’Malley also signed legislation to keep the badly struggling Prince George’s Hospital Center open until a new owner can be found.

The law sets up a state-county authority to find a new owner. The authority will consist of three people appointed by the county, three members appointed by Mr. O’Malley and one member chosen jointly by the House and Senate.

The state and county will have 60 days - with the possibility of getting an additional 30-day extension - after the bill is signed to come to an agreement on the total amount of money the state and the county will provide to support the hospital after it is taken over. Then, the authority will put out requests for proposals to find an entity to acquire the hospital.

The authority is supposed to find someone to take over the hospital by the start of the 2008 Maryland General Assembly session, because it will require legislation to enact the final agreement.

The 268-bed hospital and three related facilities are currently owned by Prince George’s County and operated by a nonprofit company. The hospital has come close to closing several times in recent years because it serves many patients too poor to pay. The center treats about 180,000 patients a year.

The hospital is home to the state’s second-busiest trauma center. It also has a neonatal center that serves the entire Washington metropolitan area.

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