- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ANNAPOLIS — Legalizing gay marriage remains an elusive goal for activists in Maryland, but gay couples are gradually achieving some of the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

The latest example, which takes effect Wednesday with a variety of other new laws, exempts domestic partners who co-own homes from the state inheritance tax.

Maryland levies no inheritance tax on property passing to spouses, children, parents, grandparents, stepchildren, stepparents and siblings under current law. Others pay a 10 percent tax on the property’s value, a tax that applied to domestic partners until the change in the law.

Lawmakers approved legislation last year to allow same-sex partners to make medical and burial decisions for each other. Domestic partners also became eligible last year for tax benefits that married people receive when transferring property.

Maryland’s highest court ruled in 2007 that lawmakers may change state law to allow same-sex couples to marry. Gay-marriage legislation was introduced in 2008 and in the last legislative session, but lawmakers did not take action on either bill.

Another new law taking effect in Maryland on Wednesday will require local law enforcement agencies that deploy SWAT teams to report the deployments to the governor’s office.

The SWAT team reporting law was passed in response to a raid by Prince George’s County authorities on the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, whose two black Labradors were killed in the raid. Drug smugglers had sent a package containing 32 pounds of marijuana to his residence, but police later cleared Mr. Calvo and his family of any wrongdoing.

The law will require law enforcement agencies to submit reports on SWAT team deployments every six months to the governor’s office.

Mr. Calvo, who pushed for the legislation, said the law will create an oversight mechanism for deployments and make authorities more careful in how they use SWAT teams.

“When you know someone is watching, you behave differently,” Mr. Calvo said.

Another new law aims to make college text books more affordable. The College Textbook Competition and Affordability Act is an effort to make students aware of cheaper textbook options.

The law requires public colleges and universities to release the names of books that will be used for courses three weeks after a faculty member makes a selection. That way, students will have more time to find books at better prices in places other than campus book stores.

“It allows students to have more opportunities to buy them cheaper,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince George’s County Democrat, who was the bill’s main sponsor. “We think it’s really going to expand the used-book market.”

A new law also takes effect to strengthen the state’s smart-growth movement, which aims to reduce urban sprawl by steering new development to areas where infrastructure such as roads, water lines and sewers already exist.

The smart-growth law requires members of local government planning commissions and boards of appeal to take a course on the role of their comprehensive plans. While local officials develop and approve comprehensive plans, the plans must implement state land-use policies.

The new smart-growth law also expresses legislative intent to overturn the Court of Appeals ruling last year that removed a hurdle to build 4,300 homes on the edge of the Green Ridge State Forest along a stream called Terrapin Run.

Other new laws taking effect Wednesday are designed to help people in the military.

Maryland will join 11 other states that have agreed to an interstate compact to make it easier for children in military families to transfer between school districts. States that join the compact agree to work together to develop uniform standards to ease transitions.

Members of the Maryland National Guard will be exempt from paying nonresident tuition at public colleges and universities in the state.

There can be a big tuition savings for nonresidents. For example, in-state tuition was about $8,000 in 2008, compared with $23,000 for out-of-state students at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Also, state employees who benefit from a union contract will have to pay costs associated with collective bargaining efforts, under a law called the Fair Share Act. Before, people who benefited from collective bargaining who were not members of a union did not pay anything to offset bargaining costs.

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