Issues Update - May 2006
Wrap-up – What matters to you?
I am pleased to report to Howard County citizens some of my achievements in Annapolis. The efforts of my work, as well as the Howard County Delegation (which I chair), and the County Executive have resulted in increased resources that will benefit our entire community. The following are some of our successes:
Teacher Pension -- The Legislature passed HB 1737, the largest pension enhancement in over 25 years. It would increase the pension income for retired teachers and State employees. Today, retirees receive 38% of their pre-retirement income under the current pension system. The teachers’ current pension plan ranks last in the nation. The new system would boost retirement benefits by increasing the multiplier used to calculate the pension and requiring a higher employee contribution. It is retroactive back to 1998. In addition to allowing teachers to retire and live with dignity, the increased pension benefits should be an incentive to attract new teachers to Maryland. The cost of this bill is $120 million in Fiscal Year 08.
Healthy Air Act -- The Legislature passed the Healthy Air Act (SB 154) requiring long overdue upgrades to Maryland’s coal-fired power plants. The bill limits the emission of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury from specified electric generating facilities in Maryland. The bill also addresses carbon dioxide emissions by requiring the Governor to include the State in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Research has shown that these emissions cause and/or aggravate conditions ranging from asthma to cancer, making clean air a major public health issue in Maryland. In other words: we all have a stake in clean air. By cleaning up Maryland’s coal fired power plants, the Healthy Air Act will improve public health and the quality of life for thousands of Marylanders suffering from debilitating diseases linked to air pollution.
Agriculture Stewardship -- HB 2, called Agriculture Stewardship, provides incentives to farmers that will help clean up Maryland’s rivers, streams, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. It implements the recommendations of the Agricultural Stewardship Commission and establishes programs meant to preserve farmland and farming in the State. This represents an unprecedented step forward in the relationship between farmers and environmental advocates. All Marylanders stand to benefit from this new partnership to help farmers and the environment.
Sexual Predators -- Responding to concerns about child safety, the House passed HB4 which proposes lifetime supervision of paroled sexual predators and mandatory minimum prison sentences for child sex offenders. The bill includes Jessica’s Law, a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for anyone convicted of rape or attempted rape of a child. Jessica’s Law is named for Jessica Marie Lunsford, the nine-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2005 by a convicted sex offender. Unfortunately the Senate killed the bill. During the Special Session in June, the General Assembly did agree on a slightly different version. SB 2 entitled Sexual Offenders - Supervision, Notifications, and Penalties will increase the penalties and supervision of sexual predators, especially child sex offenders.
Homestead Act -- The House voted to expand the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit (Circuit Breaker). HB 5 proposes doubling the maximum assessed value of a property exemption from $150K to $300K, and exempting 401K and other retirement income from the net worth limitation. This action would provide a greater benefit to homeowners currently in the program and would draw additional homeowners into the program. The Circuit Breaker was last reviewed in 1989 -- since that time, residential assessments have risen at a rate far greater than household income levels. This legislation will help longtime residents of neighborhoods stay in the communities they helped to build. Coupled with the Aging in Place legislation passed last year by the County Council of Howard County, retired citizens on fixed incomes will find it easier to remain in the homes they have lived in for many years
Energy Regulation -- Electric bills were scheduled to increase 72% starting July 1, 2006. In response to citizen outrage, the Public Service Commission (PSC) agreed to a rate stabilization plan that would give participants a 21% increase in July followed by gradual increases until the deferred amount, plus 5% interest, would be paid at the end of 2 years. Customers would be automatically enrolled in this program unless they chose to opt out, which would result in a full 72% increase in July.
The legislature was appalled at the PSC’s approval of the 72% rate increase, as well as their rate stabilization plan to fix the sharp increase in rates. In response, the legislature passed SB 1102 which would remove the current members of the PSC and allow the Legislature and the Governor to appoint new members. We also passed HB 1713 granting the Legislature approval authority over the merger of Constellation Energy and Florida Power and Light (FPL) to give the Legislature leverage to reduce the rate increase and protect consumers. SB 1099, passed by both Houses, would require Constellation Energy to return to BG&E $528 million in transition costs recovered during electric deregulation to reduce the expected rate increase. Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed these bills.
The Legislature adjourned at midnight on April 10, 2006 as constitutionally mandated. Only the House of Delegates passed a compromise bill, HB 1712 entitled Electric Restructuring - Standard Offer Service - Rate Stabilization, (worked out between the Governor, House Speaker, Senate President, & BGE ) to phase in increases over 3 years. Because the Senate was unable to act by midnight, the House bill will not become law. As we write this letter, we are hopeful that a special session will be called to resolve this crisis.
Please note I opposed HB 703/SB 300 entitled Electric Utility Industry Restructuring in 1999.
Stem Cells -- The Legislature passed SB 144 which would fund stem cell research, including stem cells from embryos that are no longer needed for in vitro fertilization and have been donated by couples with their written consent. These cells would be destroyed if not used for research. This bill will help Maryland continue to lead the nation in scientific innovation and will strengthen economic development in the biotech sector. It will advance cutting edge research that scientists believe will cure some of our worst diseases and give hope to many citizens.
Health Insurance Bills -- This year I chaired the Health and Government Operations Committee’s Insurance Subcommittee. Working with all concerned parties, consensus was reached on a series of bills that level the playing field between doctors and insurance companies.
HB 868 entitled Health Insurance - Assignment, Transfer, or Subcontract of Health Care Provider Contract (Selling the Renting Networks) prohibits insurers from forcing physicians to participate in Workers Compensation cases without their consent and notification.
HB 897 entitled Health Insurance - Contracts of Carriers with Providers, Ambulatory Surgical Facilities, or Hospitals - Prohibited Provisions (Most Favored Nation) forbids insurer contract clauses that bar physicians from signing up with another carrier at a lower reimbursement rate.
HB 1003 entitled Health Insurance - Carrier Provider Panels - Participation by Providers requires carriers to annually verify that there are sufficient providers to guarantee access to covered services for all members. Have you ever tried to find a specialist who was close to your home, only to discover that the nearest one was several counties away? Or that the specialist your doctor has referred you to, from the list of participating providers, no longer takes your insurance? This bill will help both you and your doctor avoid these problems. All of these bills have been passed by the House and by the Senate.
HB 896 entitled Health Maintenance Organizations - Payment of Noncontracting Health Care Providers would have established a framework on which to base payments to non-participating physicians. After many meetings, all parties decided that this issue was much more complicated than originally thought. The Medical Society (MedChi) chose to work on the problem over the summer and resubmit a bill next year.
The House passed HB 1467 entitled Maryland Cares as emergency legislation. This bill will help Medicare recipients enroll in Medicare Part D. It authorizes the Governor to direct $2 million to the state’s local area agencies on aging for outreach and education on Part D. Beneficiaries have reported that they have difficulty selecting an appropriate prescription plan for their medical needs and financial situation. Reports have surfaced about low-income beneficiaries being overcharged for medicine, and many recipients complain that their medicines are not available through the program. Maryland Cares will help connect older Marylanders with experts at local area agencies on aging to ensure that they are making informed decisions and choosing policies that are right for them.
Hospital Infections -- You may not know that more people die every year as a result of infections they acquire while patients in healthcare facilities than from homicides and car accidents combined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 90,000 people nationwide are killed annually by these deadly infections. HB 78 entitled Hospital Infections Disclosure Act is intended to ensure public access to data about Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAI) by including infection rates in the state mandated “Hospital Report Card.” The Hospital Infection Disclosure Act will reinforce the efforts of Maryland Hospitals, as well as make this crucial information available to consumers like you.Certificate of Need -- HB 1015 entitled Maryland Health Care Commission - Certificate of Need - Health Care Facilities will make it easier for Hospitals to make capital improvements to best serve their local populations.