ANNAPOLIS – Federal money, a strong Legislative Black Caucus and a determined governor persuaded two of the General Assembly’s most conservative committees to pass legislation this year they would easily have rejected in past sessions.
By the time the General Assembly adjourned for the year late Monday night, its two crime and justice committees – the House Judiciary and the Senate Judicial Proceedings committees – agreed to reduce Maryland’s drunken-driving threshold, pass a moratorium on the death penalty, and recognize the civil rights of gays in the state.
“The issues that confront those two committees are the most controversial social issues that could face any legislative body,” said House Judiciary member Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery. “And as such, most of the legislation gets killed because of the sensitivity of the issues.”
Though the moratorium died in the full Senate Monday, the two other bills will become laws this year. Getting them through both committees – which are notorious for burying bills – was a huge victory for several groups lobbying for them.
The drunken-driving bill, a victim of both committees in the past six years, passed thanks to heavy lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a federal mandate attached to millions in highway funds. The committees were persuaded to drop Maryland’s blood-alcohol limit from .10 to .08 and keep the state’s two-tier system intact.
The name of the higher threshold was changed from driving while intoxicated to driving while under the influence. The state’s lower threshold of .07 blood alcohol content, formerly a DUI charge, now will be called driving while impaired.
Similar measures had died in the House Judiciary Committee three times in the past four years. But with $70 million in federal highway funds at stake, Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, D-Prince George’s, and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, made sure the bill would get through their committees unscathed.
The bill easily passed the House Judiciary, but squeaked through Senate Judicial Proceedings, 6-5.
Vallario acknowledged that passage of .08 was driven by the federal funding. He said Maryland will be the 18th state to have that standard.
“Money’s not everything,” Vallario added. “But it has a big role in the legislative process.”
It wasn’t a total victory for MADD, which saw a bill to stiffen penalties against repeat offenders die in the Judiciary Committee. More than 20 drunken- driving bills were introduced this year, but most of them were killed in the committees.
“We pass the good ones and we kill the bad ones,” Vallario said. “And that’s our policy.”
Black legislators were determined to pass a two-year death penalty moratorium while the University of Maryland completed a study – due in September 2002 – to determine whether death penalty convictions are racially biased.
Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan suspended executions in his state last year.
Baker tried everything within his power to defeat the bill, but failed in his own committee, where the proposal passed 6-5 after it was cut to a one- year moratorium. But he spearheaded a successful filibuster in the final days of session to kill the measure.
“It’s a bad bill,” said Baker. “I can only do so much.”
Baker was so effective during the 2000 session in blocking a vote in his committee on a gubernatorial priority – a gun safety package – that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, had to use a little-used procedure to get the bill to the Senate floor, where it passed.
The death penalty moratorium was the final piece of legislation discussed in the Senate in the General Assembly’s last day Monday. Proponents of the measure didn’t even get to vote on it after the Senate’s voting machine failed to record the roll call.
The civil rights bill, a 10-year effort by gay rights activists, stalled in Judicial Proceedings in 1999. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening, whose gay brother Bruce died of AIDS, made the Anti-discrimination Act of 2001 one of his legislative priorities.
With four Republican members, all opposed, it was in Judicial Proceedings again that the bill faced the biggest obstacle. Like the .08 and moratorium measures, the bill advanced by one vote, 6-5.
Glendening, the GOP opponents claimed, was trying to make Maryland “the San Francisco of the East Coast.”
But the bill doesn’t do much to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in the state, said Baker, who supported the measure.
“It’s very symbolic,” Baker said. “People shouldn’t be prejudiced anyway.”
It’s very hard getting legislation through the General Assembly’s most conservative committees, Grosfeld said. “Fortunately, there are times when the powers of persuasion can prevail and justice is served,” she said. “But they’re rare.” -30- CNS-4-12-01