Power restoration efforts continue, after Wednesday’s ice storm. A legislative “oversight group” is formed to monitor MD’s online health care exchange. Plus: the estate tax, the “chicken tax,” Baltimore’s “taxi tax,” cell phone blocking at the Baltimore City Detention Center, & the non-earthquake in Ocean City.
Power Restoration Efforts Continue: Maryland’s public schools are back open today, even though not all of our state’s homes and businesses have got their lights back… following the ice storm that hit the region on Wednesday. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency reports that, as of 8am, there were just under 30-thousand power outages statewide. About half of those are in Central Maryland, in areas served by Baltimore Gas and Electric… and the utility says that it expects all service will be restored today. BGE says about 400 workers from other regions are assisting its own eleven-hundred contractors and employees in working to restore power to all its customers. Power restoration efforts continue in Western Maryland, as well, in areas served by First Energy Corp. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun.
“Oversight Group” Named To Monitor Online Exchange Fixes: Leaders in the General Assembly have unveiled a new oversight panel, aimed at monitoring efforts to fix problems with Maryland’s troubled online health insurance exchange. The “Oversight Group” consists of five delegates and five state Senators. It’ll hold its first meeting on Monday of next week, and continue meeting after this year’s legislative session is over. The panel will examine the contractors who worked on the exchange and the costs of setting it up. The group will also look at whether the state should keep using the exchange after open enrollment ends at the end of next month – or whether it should be rebuilt entirely. Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, who served as the point-person in Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration for implementing the exchange, says he welcomes the oversight panel’s involvement. Brown is running for governor, and has faced criticism by his rivals for the problems with the exchange’s rollout. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun, more here from the Annapolis Capital, and more here from the Washington Post.
Why Estate Tax Is A Tough Choice For O'Malley: WYPR's Fraser Smith and Josh Kurtz of Center Maryland talk about House Leader Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller's proposal to reduce the estate tax and why Governor O'Malley faces a difficult decision if it were to pass the legislature. It’s this morning’s edition of Inside Maryland Politics.
Balcony Inspection Bill Reintroduced: And a bill aimed at requiring regular inspections of balconies on apartments, hotels, and other multi-family buildings is getting a warm reception in the State Senate. This is the third year in a row that Senator Ron Young has proposed the legislation. During the last two General Assembly sessions, it failed on the Senate floor. The Frederick News Post reports that his year’s version of the bill is more narrowly focused, mandating checks only for balconies made primarily of wood – which are the sorts of structures where accidents most frequently occur. Another change to the bill is that it would now longer allow apartment owners to hire their own inspectors.
Lawmakers Consider Requiring CPR Instruction In MD Schools: Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering a bill that would require all Maryland high school students to learn CPR. The measure, called "Breanna's Law," is named after a 16-year-old Perry Hall girl who was saved by CPR after she collapsed at school while playing field hockey. The CPR training would take about 30 minutes of classroom time and would likely be taught in Health or Physical Education classes. Last year, the bill passed in the state Senate, but failed in the House. More online here.
“Chicken Tax” Bill Faces Veto: Lawmakers are also examining legislation that would impose a five cent tax on chickens grown in Maryland. But if it passes, it’s not likely to go into effect; yesterday, Governor Martin O’Malley vowed to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. The measure would direct revenues from the tax to pay for cover crop programs, designed to reduce agricultural runoff. But it faces significant opposition from poultry farmers on the Eastern Shore. And O’Malley’s press secretary tells the Daily Times that the governor doesn’t think the so-called “chicken tax” would help strike the balance of protecting Maryland’s agriculture industry and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Cell Phone Signals Now Blocked At City Detention Center: Cell phone calls by inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center are now being blocked. A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services tells the Baltimore Sun that new technology is now in place to prevent unauthorized calls, text messages, and mobile data. The smuggling of contraband cell phones into the jail was at the center of a scandal uncovered last year. The new a four-million-dollar system now makes cell phones essentially useless. Officials hope the technology will help cut down on gang activity at the jail. The blocking system reportedly went online in late December, but officials kept mum about it until they were sure it was working properly. Governor Martin O’Malley will visit the City Detention Center today to formally unveil the technology.
Sonic Booms, Not Earthquake, Felt In Ocean City: Many people in and around Ocean City felt what they thought was an earthquake early yesterday afternoon. But authorities say it was NOT a seismic event. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency says the source of the earthquake-like tremors many experienced were "sonic booms" -- caused by flight training from the Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Officials at the military base confirm that two supersonic flights conducted off the Atlantic Coast caused the sonic booms. They were heard and felt off Maryland's Eastern Shore, as well as in neighboring Delaware. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun and here from the Daily Times.
Baltimore City Teachers Agree To New Contract: Baltimore City’s teachers have ratified a new three-year contract. The agreement gives teachers annual raises of 1 percent, allows them to keep their health insurance, and offers them new opportunities for promotion. Teachers' Union President Marietta English tells the Baltimore Sun that the contract "demonstrates Baltimore teachers' willingness to create incentives for boosting teacher and student performance." The timing of yesterday’s vote to approve the contract was important since the old contract was set to expire today.
New Concussion Policy In Anne Arundel County Schools: The Anne Arundel County school board has unanimously approved a new policy on dealing with suspected concussions in student athletes. The Annapolis Capital reports that the policy requires that coaches get training on recognizing and responding to concussions. It also lays out who should be notified when students suffer from head injuries.
City Council To Spend More Time Examining “Taxi Tax” Changes: The Baltimore City Council wants some extra time to examine Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s proposals to change the city’s so-called “taxi tax.” The Mayor wants to switch the tax from its current 25-cents per passenger to 35-cents per trip; she also wants to set a $1.50 per trip charge for limousine and for-hire sedan services. The latter change drew sharp criticism at yesterday’s hearing, and the Baltimore Sun reports that the Mayor agreed to go into recess to hear more from the concerned parties; a spokesman for the Mayor is calling on limo and sedan companies to “open up their books and justify” why they want the tax to be lower. The original tax was supposed to take effect back in October, but many taxi operators refused to pay it, and it generated far less revenue than the city had expected.
Gas Prices Likely To Rise: Maryland drivers can expect to pay a bit more at the gas pump this spring. AAA Mid Atlantic tells the Baltimore Sun that many refineries slow production of gasoline in February as they conduct seasonal maintenance and that means gas prices will likely to rise in Maryland and across the country. Although prices won't rise as quickly as they have in past years, they will likely increase to between $3.55 and $3.75 per-gallon.
Baltimore County Gets Triple Triple-A: Baltimore County has once again earned a triple-A bond rating from the three major bond rating agencies. The ratings from Fitch, Standard and Poor's and Moody's Investors Service mean the county is able to borrow money for construction projects at more favorable interest rates – thereby saving taxpayers money. County officials say fewer than one-percent of counties in the country earn the prestigious recognition.
Frederick County Offers Retirement Incentives: Frederick County is urging some of its long-term employees to retire, and is offering up to 40 of them a $25-thousand incentive to do so. The Frederick County Commissioners signed off on the plan; eligible employees have to file for retirement by April 2nd to get the benefit, which will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Commissioners President Blaine Young tells the Frederick News Post that the move will ultimately save the county money, as replacement hires would come with lower costs. Young also says the county may not rehire some positions.
Dredging At West Ocean City Harbor To Finish Next Week: The Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to dredge the shallow entrance to West Ocean City’s commercial harbor. The move was backed by Senator Barbara Mikulski and local watermen – who worried that the local maritime economy could be damaged if large fishing boats were unable to get in and out of the harbor. The Daily Times reports that the dredging should be complete by next week.