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Reactions To Hobby Lobby Ruling, New MD Laws, Higher Gas Tax, Water Rates, & 911 Problems

AMR Meter by PSNH via flickr

Maryland lawmakers react to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that allows some for-profit companies not to cover contraceptives in their employee health insurance plans. More than 200 new laws take effect in MD today. The state’s gas tax goes up today, as do water and sewer rates for people served by the Baltimore Department of Public Works. Plus: problems at Baltimore’s 911 call center, a tropical storm could affect Ocean City on Friday, the latest installment of our series “Deconstructing Vacants: Baltimore’s Hope For A Better City,” and more.Reactions To SCOTUS Hobby Lobby Ruling: Maryland lawmakers are reacting to yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision that allows some private companies with religious objections not to offer prescription contraceptive coverage to their employees. Maryland’s only Republican in Congress – 1st District Representative Andy Harris – praised the ruling, saying it “uphold[s] the freedom of religion of business owners.” Harris said the decision “highlights that the United States is a beacon of freedom in the world.”  Meanwhile, Governor Martin O’Malley issued a statement saying that he’s “disappointed with the outcome.” US Senator Ben Cardin was also displeased with the ruling, saying it will jeopardize the health of women.

New Laws Taking Effect Today: Scores of new laws take effect on this first of July. One of them bans the sale of 190-proof grain alcohol at Maryland bars and liquor stores. Another law increases the earned income tax credit – a credit that more than a quarter million Marylanders claimed in the 2010 tax year. A third law prohibits state corrections officials from shackling inmates who are in labor or giving birth, and allows doctors – instead of prison guards – to determine when new mothers are ready to return to life behind bars. Several other measures become law today, but their effects won’t be felt until next year. One changes the rules for Maryland’s estate tax, raising the threshold at which it kicks in to one-and-a-half million dollars. Another sets Maryland’s minimum wage on track to reach $10.10 an hour by the year 2018; the first increase won’t take place until January. The Baltimore Sun has more.

The Right To An Attorney: Starting today, anyone arrested in Maryland has the right to an attorney when they face a court commissioner. As WYPR’s Christopher Connelly reports, that commissioner decides whether someone gets released, or is held until a judge can set bail.

Gas Tax Increases Today: It’s going to cost a little more to fill up the tank in Maryland. The state's gas tax goes up by about a half-cent per gallon today, in order to adjust the tax to inflation. The change comes just before the busy Independence Day holiday – AAA Mid-Atlantic says that the last time gas prices have been this high on the Fourth of July since 2008. Today’s tax increase comes on the one-year anniversary of Maryland’s first gas tax hike in more than two decades when the tax rose by 3 ½ cents. It’ll go up by another 3 ½ cents per gallon at the beginning of next year. The Star Democrat reports that proceeds from the higher tax are being used to pay for new transportation projects.

Water And Sewer Rates Rise: People who receive their water service from Baltimore’s Department of Public Works will soon see higher bills. Water and sewer rates are going up by eleven-percent today. It's the second yearly increase of a three-year rate adjustment to help rebuild the DPW's aging infrastructure. A family of four can expect to see an uptick of about $20 on their quarterly water bill, on average.

Tropical Storm Could Form, Affect Ocean City: Ocean City could be in for a wet for the July 4th holiday. The National Hurricane Center is keeping an eye on a rainy disturbance off of Florida that could track up the East Coast later this week. Forecasters say there is a 60 percent chance of the system developing into what would be Tropical Storm Arthur. The annual hurricane season is a month old and there have not yet been any named storms in the Atlantic. The Baltimore Sun has more.

Are Land Trusts the Answer to Baltimore’s Housing Dilemma? Two of Baltimore’s biggest problems are the 16-thousand vacants that blight blocks of the city… and the city’s need for more affordable housing. In this installment of our series “Deconstructing Vacants: Baltimore’s Hope For A Better City,” WYPR’s Kenneth Burns reports that community advocates are looking at a way to attack both problems at once… with community land trusts

Names Could Be Removed From MD Sex Offender Registry: About a quarter of the names on Maryland’s sex offender registry could soon be removed from it, following a ruling by the state’s highest court. Last year, the Court of Appeals said the state could not require registration for those who committed their crimes before the list was created in 1995. And yesterday, the judges ruled in that case and another that federal law does not override the state constitution. The Baltimore Sun reports that the names of up to 18-hundred registered offenders could be removed from the list of about eight-thousand.

Problems For Baltimore’s 911 Call Center: Baltimore’s 911 call center was experiencing some technical difficulties last night – but city officials say they have now been fixed. The issue surfaced at around 5 o’clock last night – some callers were sent to an answering machine, others got a busy tone. Baltimore’s Office of Emergency Management says the problems were resolved shortly before 11pm. Acting 911 Center Director Scott Brillman tells the Baltimore Sun that there’s no word yet on what caused the problems, but city technology workers were troubleshooting the 911 system's computers with Verizon. Brillman says the city followed a contingency plan that was created in case of call center issues.

Union Negotiations At Hopkins Hospital Resume: Unionized service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital are set to begin a new round of negotiations with the hospital today. Last week, Governor Martin O'Malley stepped in to the ongoing labor dispute, asking employees and management to take a one-week cooling-off period. Both sides tell the Baltimore Sun that they hope an agreement can be reached. The unionized employees held a three-day strike in April due to a breakdown in contract talks.

“Energy Assistance Week” Starts Today: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and BGE are hosting a big event over the next few days that will help low-income city residents cover their utility bills. Energy Assistance Week runs today through Thursday from 9 to 3 at Morgan State University. Applicants need to bring an official ID, proof of income and residence, a recent utility bill and Social Security cards for every member of the household, including children.

Baltimore Baseball: The Orioles crushed four home runs on their way to a 7 to 1 win over the Texas Rangers last night. The two teams play again tonight at Camden Yards; first pitch is set for 7:05pm.

Washington Baseball: The Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies last night; the score there: 7 to 3.

UMD Joins Big Ten: The University of Maryland is now officially a member of the Big Ten Conference. The Baltimore Sun reports that yesterday marked the Terrapins' final day as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terps were charter member of the ACC, which was founded in 1953.