Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | State legal protection designed to help keep the Preakness Stakes horse race in Maryland was among the first pieces of legislation signed Tuesday by Gov. Martin O’Malley, just hours after the General Assembly adjourned.

The new law, passed on an emergency basis, gives Maryland eminent-domain authority to buy the second leg of the Triple Crown. The race is a centerpiece of Maryland’s horse racing industry, and Mr. O’Malley pushed for the law in the event federal bankruptcy proceedings of Magna Entertainment Corp. steer the race to an owner who wants to move it.

Critics of the new law say it won’t be of any use in a federal case, but state lawyers are hopeful that the legislative action could benefit the state’s efforts to retain the Preakness.

Mr. O’Malley said the state must do all it can to protect the state’s struggling equine industry, which generates an estimated 20,000 jobs and has an annual economic impact of $1.5 billion.

“We’re very respectful of the prerogative and the powers of the bankruptcy court,” Mr. O’Malley said, adding that the measure was only intended to give the state flexibility in protecting its economic interests.

A hearing on Magna’s assets is scheduled for April 20 in Wilmington, Del.

Maryland contends it has a legal right to the first chance to buy the race, if it goes up for sale, but Magna has not recognized it.

Meanwhile, the governor signed dozens of bills into law on Tuesday.

In reaction to difficult financial times, Mr. O’Malley signed legislation to expand unemployment benefits to part-time employees. More than 420,000 people work part time in Maryland - about 15 percent of the work force, according to state estimates.

Supporters pushed for the law to provide a safety net for people who can’t work full time because of family, medical reasons or other obligations. The emergency legislation takes effect immediately.

The governor also signed the Lilly Ledbetter Civil Rights Restoration Act, which increases the amount of time an employee can seek relief for wrongful employment practices. It enables employees to recover back pay for up to two years before a complaint is filed.

Mr. O’Malley formally extended a deadline for selling the financially troubled Prince George’s Hospital System. The timetable has been extended to May 2010.

The Prince George’s County Hospital Authority will be able to sell Prince George’s hospital center and four other county health facilities to different owners, but all parts of the system will have to be sold at the same time.

Mr. O’Malley also signed legislation he wishes had been law when he was mayor of Baltimore: It allows the city’s mayor to remove the police commissioner for any reason. Currently, the mayor can only fire a police chief for official misconduct, inefficiency or incompetence, including prolonged illness. The issue became a problem in 2004, when then-Mayor O’Malley relieved Police Commissioner Kevin Clark of his command. Mr. Clark ended up suing in a lengthy legal case, but state and federal lawsuits were thrown out last year. The new law takes effect in June.

The governor also signed off on Rosa’s Law, which changes references to mental retardation to an intellectual disability. State facilities will now be called centers for people with an intellectual disability, instead of centers for the mentally retarded.

Another new law will require any U.S. flag or Maryland flag displayed on state property and bought with state money to be made in the United States. The law takes effect in October.

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