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Cold Weather, MD’s Budget, Ground Rents, Dog Bite Liability, and Smart Meter Opt-Out Fees

Nathan Sterner

Baltimore’s declared a Code Blue Alert though Friday, with bitter cold in the forecast. Plus: balancing MD’s budget, ground rents, dog bite liability, smart meter opt-out fees, Dwyer’s DUI bill, Henson’s return to court, cell phone data, and more.

Cold Weather Continues: A couple days of frigid temperatures are in store for Central Maryland. Temperatures might make it above freezing today in Baltimore (mid 30s highs are in the forecast), but with strong winds (gusting up to 40mph), it won’t feel that way. Lows tonight will be in the mid single digits, and highs tomorrow only in the mid 20s. Baltimore City has declared a Code Blue for the next two days. It’s been so cold this winter that reservoirs around the region are mostly frozen over… and the Baltimore Department of Public Works tells the Baltimore Sun that it’s delaying the start of boating season at the Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs because of ice on the boat ramps. Boating season at those two reservoirs usually starts on March 1st. That’s Saturday. DPW officials say they haven’t determined when it’ll start this year.

Franchot, Kopp Oppose O’Malley-Proposed Fund Transfer: Two top state officials are opposing Governor Martin O'Malley's plan to pad the state’s budget with $100-million dollars from Maryland’s pension fund. State Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp appeared before the State Senate’s budget committee yesterday, to urge them to oppose O’Malley’s proposal. The Baltimore Sun reports that they expressed concern that the move could prompt the big three bond ratings agencies to lower the state’s AAA bond rating. Governor O’Malley’s budget secretary, T. Eloise Foster, says that the transfer is needed to close a long-term revenue shortfall – and notes that the $100-million in question represents a fraction of the nearly $2-billion the state sends to the pension system every year. The Senate committee will decide next week whether to use the funds, as O’Malley suggests, or find other ways of balancing the state’s budget.

Dwyer Proposes Tougher Penalties For Officials Convicted Of DUI: A Maryland lawmaker who was twice convicted of DUI is proposing legislation to crack down on officials convicted of drunk driving. The bill, proposed by Anne Arundel County Delegate Don Dwyer, would require high-ranking elected officials convicted of driving drunk to serve 60-days, or 30 weekends in jail, even on a first offense. The sentence is identical to the one Dwyer himself is serving after he was found guilty of being intoxicated in separate driving and boating incidents. The Baltimore Sun notes that the bill is facing opposition from the legal community. The Maryland Judicial Conference, which represents Maryland judges, submitted written testimony saying that Dwyer’s legislation “raises constitutional concerns,” because it would hold state officials to a different standard than regular citizens. The bill went before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday... where the testimony Dwyer gave proved somewhat controversial, because of where the Delegate was sitting. Dwyer used to serve on the Judiciary committee, but was stripped of that post this year as punishment for his convictions. But as the Annapolis Capital reports, Dwyer was allowed to sit with the committee members, instead of in the audience. Dwyer says that his placement at the hearing didn’t break any rules.

Dog Bite Liability Bill Moves Forward: The State Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill aimed at assigning liability for dog bites. The measure would undo a ruling by the state’s highest court that declared pit bulls “inherently dangerous” and made landlords liable if one of their tenants owned a pit bull that bit someone. That opinion prompted many landlords to order tenants to get rid of their dogs or face eviction. Lawmakers have tried to come up with a way of overturning that decision for two years, but have been unable to reach a consensus on how to do so. The Baltimore Sun reports that the bill before the State Senate would be “breed neutral,” and make landlords liable for bites only if they knew or should have known that a dog was vicious. It would also make it easier for dog bite victims to prove that dogs had a history of attacks. This bill is significantly different from ones the Senate passed in previous years – but closer to legislation that has previously passed the House of Delegates. State Senator Brian Frosh says he thinks the House will approve the new measure.

Ground Rent Law Rejected: Maryland’s highest court has effectively thrown out the state’s ground rent law. The law was passed by the General Assembly in 2007; the Baltimore Sun reports that before that point, people could be ejected from their homes for failing to pay ground rents – sometimes over debts as small as $24. The ground rent holders could then sell the home and keep the proceeds. The 2007 law stopped that, and made it so that ground rent holders could only get enough money out of sales to pay ground rent debts. But yesterday, the state’s Court of Appeals upheld a decision made by a lower court saying that stopping the ejectment process amounts to an illegal taking of the constitutional rights of ground-rent owners. The ground rent system goes back to the colonial era; more than 80-thousand homes with ground-rents have been entered into a registry created with the 2007 law. Most of those homes are in Baltimore City. State Senator Brian Frosh says it’s unlikely that lawmakers will have time to address the court’s decision during this year’s General Assembly session. State Attorney General Doug Gansler says through a spokesperson that his office is reviewing the ruling.

Bill Would Have Some Drivers Turn Over Cell Phone Data to Police: Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering legislation that would require drivers involved in serious accidents while using cellphones to give police certain information from that phone. The Baltimore Sun reports that the version of the bill in the House of Delegates would make drivers hand over their cell phone numbers, service providers, and any e-mail accounts associated with the phone if police have “reasonable grounds” to believe that use of the phone contributed to the accident. Delegate Luke Clippinger, who’s sponsoring the bill, says it would give police the information they need to pull phone records to see whether the driver was using the phone or text messaging when the accident took place. The measure’s opposed by the ACLU of Maryland, which testified yesterday that it would erode Marylanders’ privacy rights and could be unconstitutional.

Opt-Out Fees Set For Smart Meters: Customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric will be allowed to “opt out” of the new smart-meter technology that the utility is installing at homes around the region. But they’ll have to pay fees in order to do so. Yesterday, the state’s Public Service Commission ruled that BGE customers who don’t want smart meters will have to pay a $75 up-front charge, and then $11 a month thereafter. The Annapolis Capital reports that, in all, the fees would total $132 a year. Those fees are lower than the ones that BGE had proposed. BGE and other utilities say that smart-meter technology will save money by helping them better understand patterns of energy use, and not having to rely on meter readers. Smart-meter opponents have expressed privacy and health concerns.

Baltimore Launches Program To Fight Childhood Obesity: Baltimore is launching a new program designed to reduce childhood obesity. Using a 750-thousand dollar state grant the city plans to bring fruits and vegetables to 18 corner stores in West Baltimore. The stores are in so-called "food deserts," areas defined as having low vehicle ownership, high poverty and little access to healthy food. There’s more here from the Baltimore Sun.

Henson’s State Senate Candidacy Goes To Court: Longtime political consultant Julius Henson is headed to court this morning – where a judge will decide whether his campaign for a seat in the State Senate violates the terms of his probation. State officials say Henson is barred from working for a political campaign while on probation stemming from an election fraud conviction. Henson and his lawyer claim the prohibition doesn't apply to Henson's own campaign and say the allegations are without merit. The hearing is set for 9:30 this morning.

There is no commentary today from WYPR Senior News Analyst Fraser Smith. You can find Fraser’s past essays here.