Tag Archives: pit bulls

Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

March 14, 2014–IT WAS A disappointment to liberal opinionators but the 2014 General Assembly proved surprisingly cautious and balanced in moving Maryland decidedly to the political left during its 90-day session that ended April 7.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, barely containing his national ambitions, took a hard-left turn in his legislative agenda. It was aimed at impressing liberal Democratic interest groups across the country.

But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller wisely slowed the O’Malley Express and made sure Maryland didn’t get too far out in front of the Democrats’ march to the far left.

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate put a damper on overly ambitious liberal proposals. Here are a few examples:

–Minimum Wage. Yes, O’Malley is bragging that Maryland is leading the nation by passing a $10.10 minimum wage. But read the fine print.

The first wage boost next January is only seventy-five cents an hour. It won’t be till mid-2018 – over five years from now – when Maryland reaches O’Malley’s Nirvana, that $10.10 threshold.

This cautious approach is dictated by legitimate concerns that a rapid, 39 percent wage boost will hurt many small businesses and retail chains and could lead to layoffs, store closings or cutbacks in work hours.

Weakening the Bill

The final bill also exempts certain employers, adds a lower, trainee category, contains no automatic annual inflation boost and denies higher wages to tipped workers.

O’Malley can brag all he wants, yet the final version is a far cry from his original proposal. The new law does provide higher baseline wages for low-income workers, but it takes a decidedly conservative approach getting there.

Pit Bull Legislation

–Dog Bites. Yes, lawmakers finally found comity on reversing a dreadfully misguided ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that called one breed of dog, pit bulls (though they are not really a breed) “inherently dangerous.”

Pit-bull owners aren’t off the hook, though. Lawmakers added language making all dog owners legally responsible if their pet bites someone. That thoughtful, moderate step levels the field and strikes a blow for individual responsibility when good dogs do bad things.

Puff-and-Pay

–Decriminalizing marijuana possession. This move is being hailed as the first step toward fully legalizing marijuana. In truth, lawmakers aren’t opening the floodgates.Marijuana smoker

A $100 fine for a first offense is a hefty price to pay for getting caught with pot. A $250 fine for a second offense will put a crimp in most wallets, and a $500 fine for a third offense comes with possible mandatory drug counseling.

That’s quite a penalty for inhaling this carcinogenic weed.

Perhaps the bill will reduce jail overcrowding in large jurisdictions, as some predict, and allow police to focus on serious criminal offenses. Or it could mean a deluge of new pothead offenders. We’re in virgin territory that could well require a re-thinking of this move by the 2015 or 2016 legislature.

Medicinal Pot Smoking

–Medical marijuana. This law could make it easier for seriously ill patients to get relief from their pain, anxiety and/or nausea. Academic medical centers refused to participate in the existing program for fear of endangering their massive federal research grants, so now legislative sponsors are trying a different approach through pre-approved physicians.

Still, drawing up the rules and regulations will be complicated and could take quite some time to complete — at least 18 months. Lawmakers continue their go-slow approach.

Creating a market for marijuana growers could easily spin out of control. Some physicians may abuse the privilege of prescribing this controlled substance. The law may have to be revised yet again in future years to make it effective.

Early Start to Schooling

–Pre-K expansion. Yes, Maryland is enlarging its program to give pre-kindergarten education to underprivileged children. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is crowing about this grand achievement.

But wait a minute: Only 1,600 kids will be helped under this legislation. That’s a drop in a very large ocean.

At that pace, Brown will be eligible for Social Security before all the needy kids in Maryland get into this worthwhile program. His claims of a great step forward ring hollow.

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

–Estate tax reduction. O’Malley could still veto this bill to impress ultra-liberal groups that idolize candidates who bash the rich. Keeping this punitive tax on the wealthy would appease the left wing of his party.

Still, there’s no denying wealthy Marylanders are moving to Florida and other states that don’t punish the heirs of an individual who happens to leave relatives great sums of money.

Both Miller and Busch recognized Maryland was losing many of its best and most committed civic leaders as result of this soak-the-rich policy.

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

They pushed through changes that will make the state’s estate tax identical to federal limits – but only gradually over the next five years.

It’s a nod to the business community from top lawmakers based on practical realities. It’s also a pullback from O’Malley’s perpetual, liberal business-bashing.

All of these measures indicate that the state’s legislature remains stubbornly moderate in tone, fearful of moving too quickly or too aggressively on social issues. Rarely do Maryland’s legislative leaders fully embrace the knee-jerk crusade du jour. They keep worrying about the unintended, negative consequences.

Cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis this session. Though the legislature is increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats, it’s a positive sign that caution remains an integral part of the Maryland General Assembly’s DNA.

###

New Day for Maryland’s High Court

By Barry Rascovar / July 9, 2013 

FORGET THE WOMEN’S ANGLE. What’s most important about Mary Ellen Barbera’s elevation to chief of the Maryland Court of Appeals isn’t her gender but her pragmatic, consensus-building tendencies that contrast with the liberal interpretations and easy-going nature of her retired predecessor, Robert M. Bell.

Yes, it’s good to have a female at the top of Maryland’s court system for the first time, especially with the addition of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Shirley Watts to the high court. This gives women a historic majority on the state’s court of last resort.

New Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera

Mary Ellen Barbera

But the four female votes on Cotap, as it is commonly known, will not be in lock step. Indeed, there’s a gulf separating written opinions of the decidedly progressive Howard County jurist Lynn Battaglia and the more cautious Eastern Shore jurist, Sally Adkins.

Of course, this doesn’t easily break down along a liberal-conservative spectrum. Legal disputes usually involve differing interpretations of the law that have little to do with political leanings.

But on a number of heated issues, the state’s high court seems to have wandered far astray — with the chief judge having neither the desire nor clever dexterity to act as a unifier.

Indeed, Bell may have been too nice a fellow to take on the daunting task of “herding cats,” which is what it takes to keep six stubbornly independent, free-thinking judges in agreement and in the middle of the judicial road.

Effective In Dissent

Barbera is described as forthright, diplomatic and an accomplished bridge-builder. She can be remarkably frank, too.

When a court majority overturned the state’s DNA testing law for people jailed and accused of a crime, Barbera’s dissent stripped away the legal nonsense and hyperbole.

That ruling, she said, inflated privacy rights of people in jail and deflated the public’s right to be kept safe through minimally intrusive DNA sampling of inmates. The majority had taken an unrealistic and alarmist view, she wrote.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed.

This state’s high court needs to start using common sense and rely less on legal abstractions and hypotheticals.

No Residency Rules for Politcos

Take the recent case of Daryl Jones, who sat on the Anne Arundel County Council until he served time in federal prison for intentionally not filing his income taxes. Members of the council eventually removed him, since he’d been living in a South Carolina prison for months.

Now a majority of the high court, 4-3, wants Jones returned to his council seat because of its tortured interpretation of the words “residence,” “abode” and “domicile.” It’s the legal equivalent of arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Atkins, Barbera and Glenn Harrell said this ruling “defies logic” and “makes no sense.” Even worse, the majority didn’t bother studying the historical record that makes clear what writers of the county charter meant.

The ruling is an extension of the high court’s continuing misadventures in defining political residence and political redistricting lines.

It’s gotten so bad one Baltimore City councilwoman hasn’t lived in her district for a decade (she prefers an Inner Harbor condo view) and communities that expanded beyond city and county boundaries are forbidden from voting in a unified district.

The Jones decision, the dissenters noted, will make matters worse because now there is essentially no legal barrier for politicians to live outside the districts they represent.

Pit Bull Chaos

Similarly, on the pit bull issue, the Bell court created a chaotic mess that the state legislature won’t or can’t figure out how to correct.

Bell & Co. traveled down a dangerous path by declaring pit bulls “inherently dangerous” without finding any empirical evidence to back them up.

It’s a terrible decision lacking in solid scientific data. It amounts to genetic racism among breeds of dog.

The dissenters, who railed against the illogic of this 4-3 ruling, again included Barbera.

Judicial Trailblazer

Nearly all of Bob Bell’s splendid career was served on the bench. He was a trailblazer for African-American jurists. He has a brilliant legal mind.

Yet he lacked the political instincts and negotiating skills of his predecessor, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, a jovial but tough-minded Irishman who could deal effectively with state legislators, governors and colleagues.

Barbera promises to bring her own style of leadership to the chief judgeship. It could shape the high court in quite different ways.

Like this column? Dislike it? Write a comment. If you want to receive each new column, click on the free  subscribe button at politicalmaryland.com.

Looking back at the General Assembly

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / April 17, 2013

While we await this spring’s locust and stinkbug invasions, let’s be grateful for the disappearance of another pest — the Maryland General Assembly.

After deliberating for three months, state lawmakers finished their work having done little damage and possibly even some good.

Sure, the cost of gasoline jumps by four cents a gallon in July but we’re so used to seeing daily pump prices fluctuate that the extra tax bite could go largely unnoticed.

On the positive side, this tax increase paves the way for more bridge and state highway work and a new rapid rail line from Woodlawn to downtown.

The gun-control bill that passed contains the same sort of good news, bad news. It will be much tougher for budding criminals and unstable individuals to purchase a gun. Ammunition clips of more than 10 rounds will be banned along with most assault-style weapons.

Hunters won’t be impacted by the new law; anyone with a clean record can still buy an unlimited supply of firearms. But in seeking to crack down on the ability of ‘bad guys’ to buy heavy firepower weapons, the legislature restricted gun sales and put an arm of government – the State Police – in charge of determining whose applications get rejected.

New restrictions also make it costly to chat on your cell phone while driving. Delegates and senators gave police the right to fine drivers seen holding a cell phone to their ear. Only when stopped at a light or stalled in traffic will it be legal to do so.

Another bill approved by the General Assembly will make it easier to cast early ballots next year. There will be three or four new early-voting sites in Baltimore County, perhaps even one in Owings Mills. Two more days of early voting were added — for a total of eight — and these sites will be open 12 hours a day. Anything that makes voting convenient improves representative democracy. On this bill, lawmakers did us a big favor.

There’s also a chance Baltimore County will adopt the approach to school construction Baltimore City successfully advocated in the State House this year: A joint state-city funding program that permits outdated schools to be rapidly replaced over the next decade. Playing copycat would make sense for the county.

Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to reverse a misguided decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals regarding pit bulls, which it labeled “inherently dangerous.” This makes pit bull owners and even apartment operators who rent to tenants with these dogs vulnerable to liability lawsuits.

That could lead to heartbreak as pit bull owners and their children are forced to give up their animals or face eviction. It’s a situation that should have been fixed by legislators but the powerful trial lawyers won on this one — and the dog owners lost.

Barry Rascovar is a writer and communications consultant living in Reisterstown. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.

Gas tax unpopular yet necessary

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / April 3, 2013

No one likes it, which is why Marylanders haven’t seen a gas-tax increase in over 20 years. That’s about to change.

With final passage last Friday of a transportation revenue bill, state legislators set in motion a four-cent jump in gasoline prices come July. This will be followed by increases in later years so that by 2016 we’ll be paying 13 cents to 20 cents more per gallon.”

We’ve gotten used to sudden leaps in fuel prices. Those increases, though, fattened profits for Big Oil companies and OPEC nations. At least this time the money will stay in Maryland.

The revenue raised – $4.4 billion over six years – will revive the state’s depleted transportation construction program. That means more dollars for interstate improvements, bridge repairs and the Red Line mass-transit extension from Woodlawn to Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

This $2 billion rapid rail line will be the linchpin of Baltimore’s disorganized rapid rail system. The Red Line will give county residents on the west side – Randallstown homeowners take note – a quick, hassle-free way to travel into the city for business and pleasure.

Dundalk and Essex residents, meanwhile, will have a short drive to the Bayview rail terminus for downtown or westside commutes.

The big bonus is that this east-west transit line will tie together both the Light Rail Line and the existing Owings Mills-to-Johns Hopkins Medical Center Metro.

This means Owings Mills and Pikesville residents can commute by rail to their jobs at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn or to the nearby Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It means city residents can hop on the Red Line, transfer to the Light Rail Line and wind up at work in Hunt Valley.

It means much easier travel options to Orioles and Ravens games, entertainment venues and downtown dining spots.

Without the gas-tax increase, none of this is possible. Maryland politicians consistently ran away from a gas-tax vote. This is the first time in two decades there has been enough support to pay for transportation improvements.

What made the difference?

Time was running out to prove to federal officials that Maryland would put up its share of the money to build the Red Line and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. Without a commitment this year, both projects would have been shelved.

Legislators also weren’t about to vote to raise the gas tax in 2014, an election year. So this was Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last chance to solve the state’s worsening transportation situation before leaving office.

The price of progress is never easy to accept when it’s coming out of your own pocket. For now, this move is quite unpopular. The good news is that the benefits will become obvious in coming years.

Barry Rascovar is a writer and communications consultant living in Reisterstown. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.