2014 End of Session Letter
A Message From Bobby
Dear Friends, It is my honor to serve you in the Maryland State Senate. I would encourage you to contact my legislative office with issues or ideas for the Legislative Session. We welcome anyone to come visit us in Annapolis. In the meantime, please use this website as a... Click here to read more.
We have come to the end of the 434th Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly. I feel honored and privileged to have served the residents of District 11, Baltimore County for the past sixteen years. Your calls, e-mails, and letters have been instrumental in making decisions to benefit the residents of our District and our State.
This session presented a number of challenges. The primary responsibility of the General Assembly is to pass a balanced budget while maintaining our priorities in education, public safety, healthcare, and protecting our natural resources. Despite limited revenue, we were able to greatly reduce our structural deficit without jeopardizing essential services and our top rank in public education. My colleagues and I tackled tough issues such as minimum wage, marijuana policy reform, and adhering to the DeWolfe v. Richmond decision. In addition, the General Assembly dealt with other important issues in areas of civil procedure, family law, environmental protection, criminal law, education and health care.
This year marked my fifth session as a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. I enjoyed the opportunity to hear some of the more controversial bills and discuss significant legal issues. As one of the legislature’s few practicing attorneys, I try to bring a practical perspective to the work of this committee. This year, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee considered issues such as marijuana decriminalization and medicinal use, distracted driving, protective orders, domestic violence, revenge porn, civil liability for dog bites, human trafficking, transgender rights, family law, and civil procedure. I have attached a synopsis of some of the major bills. I encourage you to visit my website www.bobbyzirkin.com for more information or the Maryland General Assembly website http://mgaleg.maryland.gov.
It was a pleasure to work with my 11th District colleagues during the past ninety days. As we move into the interim, I look forward to spending more time with my family and returning to my law practice in Owings Mills. Please do not hesitate to call my office if I may ever be of assistance. Thank you again for the honor and privilege of serving as your State Senator.
State Senator, District 11
Senator Zirkin’s work on the Judicial Proceedings Committee this session involved marijuana decriminalization, civil liability and breed neutrality in dog bite cases, divorce law reform, and insuring that our police officers are given appropriate resources and tools and treated with fairness in disciplinary processes. He sponsored Senate Bill 364, which changes the penalty for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil offense with enhanced drug treatment and education. The bill passed the General Assembly and will become law. Eighteen states have similar decriminalization laws and have seen not only savings in resources, but also a drop in drug use with a renewed focus on drug treatment as opposed to criminalization. It is important to note that in no state has there been an increase in drug use after decriminalization. Rather, the fact is that the opposite occurred. With passage of this law the General Assembly has taken an important step to unburden the judicial system, focus resources on effective treatment options, and enhance public safety by permitting law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes.
For several years the General Assembly has debated how to address the Court of Appeals decision in Tracey v. Solesky. The Solesky decision singled out a specific breed for liability purposes and created issues for dog owners. In response, Senator Zirkin and his Senate colleagues sought to create a breed neutral law, treating all breeds of dogs the same, while protecting innocent victims of dog attacks. The House adopted a position adhering to the “one free bite rule.” A compromise was reached creating a breed neutral law while still providing enhanced protection for victims. Although Senator Zirkin believes that innocent victims should always be compensated regardless of a dog’s history, he also believed that the compromise was a fair solution for the present time in order to move beyond the legislative impasse.
The General Assembly passed SB 212, which ensures civil rights of transgendered Marylanders. Senator Zirkin was proud to support SB 923 the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission, which creates a distribution system for medical marijuana. This medicine will be available to individuals with debilitating illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and the like. Senator Zirkin was also proud to support HB 43, Harassment – Revenge Porn, which criminalizes the placing of inappropriate images of another individual on the internet without the individual’s permission with the intent to cause harm to that individual. That legislation passed the General Assembly as well.
Addressing the Richmond Decision
Maryland’s pretrial procedure involves a first hearing in front of a District Court Commissioner, who makes a determination of whether a defendant will be released on their own recognizance, will set an appropriate bail, or will be held pending seeing a judge. In 2013 the Maryland Court of Appeals decided in DeWolfe v. Richmond that the state must provide counsel to indigent defendants at an initial appearance before a District Court Commissioner. Senator Zirkin served on several task forces to find a solution to this complicated issue.
Several radical proposals were floated to deal with this issue, and Senator Zirkin, believing that the current system is both fair for defendants and ensures public safety, successfully worked to defeat those proposals. In the end, the issue was addressed in the state budget. The General Assembly decided to address the Richmond decision by setting up a process where panel attorneys, pro bono attorneys, and third year law students under the supervision of an attorney will provide counsel for these defendants.
Continuing the Fight Against Columbia Gas
Columbia Gas, unfortunately, is continuing to move forward with their plan to construct a pipeline through Baltimore and Harford Counties. Senator Zirkin and many constituents are fighting construction of this pipeline due to concerns about public safety and environmental safety. Senator Zirkin introduced Senate Bills 361 and 362 to improve pipeline safety and protect landowner rights. SB 361 would have required Columbia Gas to comply with all federal regulations regarding gas pipeline safety inspections, and SB 362 would have allowed fines to be imposed against Columbia Gas in the amount of $100,000 for each day they failed to have the pipeline inspected as required under federal law. Both bills were heard in the Senate Finance Committee and unfortunately were not brought to a vote. Senator Zirkin, working with citizens in Baltimore and Howard County, will continue to fight to ensure safety in compliance with the law.
Educating Our Children Baltimore County School Board
For many years, Senator Zirkin has introduced legislation to create a partially elected or “hybrid” school board. This session the bill was reintroduced as Senate Bill 290 and the bill was passed by the General Assembly. SB 290 will finally provide the citizens of Baltimore County with a democratic process for selecting school board members. Beginning in 2018 the school board will consist of both elected and appointed members ensuring both diversity and accountability.
Senator Zirkin supported three bills addressing problems regarding the state’s implementation of Common Core standards, the PARCC test, and new teacher evaluation systems. HB 1164 creates a workgroup including teachers and parents to improve the implementation of Common Core standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. Common Core is a set of standards defining what K-12 students should know in language arts and math by the end of each grade. SB 676 ensures that state test scores are not used in teacher and principal evaluations for at least the next two years. SB 910 creates an oversight process for any Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waivers that Maryland submits to give legislative leaders an opportunity to ensure that they comply with state law.
Protecting Our Environment
Senator Zirkin introduced Senate Bill 360 which would have banned hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Maryland. Fracking is a dangerous procedure used to extract oil and other natural resources from underground. Fracking requires pumping a mixture of millions of gallons of water and up to 600 chemicals beneath the ground. Some of the chemicals commonly used in fracking are known carcinogens. People who live in a close proximity to fracking wells commonly experience a loss of their sense of smell and taste and suffer other long term health issues. Ground water contamination is a concern associated with fracking as the contaminants infiltrate our tributaries to the Chesapeake and threaten our state’s other natural resources and fisheries. The bill was heard in the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee and unfortunately was never brought to a vote. Fracking can cause detrimental short and long term economic, environmental and health problems due to contamination and will remain as one of Senator Zirkin’s top priorities in coming sessions.
Marijuana Policy Reform and Drug Treatment
There were bills on both legalization of marijuana (similar to Colorado and Washington) and decriminalization (similar to the laws in 18 states). Senator Zirkin sponsored Senate Bill 364 which removes the criminal sanction for possession of de minimis quantities of marijuana. The bill passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote of 36-8 and passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 78-55. The bill will create a civil fine not to exceed $100 for adults (21 and older) possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana; the second offense would carry a $250 fine; the third, the offender must appear in court and can receive a $500 fine and the judge could order drug treatment and drug education. An individual under the age of 21 found in possession of de minimis amounts of marijuana must appear in court and would suffer the same fines and could be ordered to drug education programs on the first or any subsequent offense. Under the bill, all fines would be dedicated to Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to be used for drug education and treatment programs.
Currently Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia all practice various alternatives to incarceration for marijuana possession. Maryland will join the states that recognize that criminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana is a failed policy.
Marijuana is a public health issue and not a criminal issue. Criminalizing marijuana possession is a drain on resources of police, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and the prison system. Estimates range on potential savings, but may be in upwards of 100 million dollars per year. Most importantly, decriminalizing marijuana has not led, in any of the 18 states, to increased use of any drug in any age range. In fact, decriminalized states have lowered their rates of drug use by focusing resources on effective policies such as drug treatment and police resources on more violent crimes. In support of
SB 364, Senator Allan Kittleman (R-District 9 Carroll & Howard County), stated on the floor during the debate, “Decriminalization is a true public safety measure”, referring to the bill’s focus on effective strategies for reduction of drug use.
The Maryland Health Connection proved problematic in its implementation. Senator Zirkin has worked with many constituents to alleviate their problems with applying for healthcare under the Maryland Health Exchange. The state has decided to revamp the current program and use an alternative program deployed in Connecticut. Marylanders who already enrolled through the Maryland Health Connection have to reenroll when their plan expires after a year and will be able to use the new enrollment program. The next open enrollment period begins November 16th. The Senator and his office will continue to be available to answer any questions or concerns constituents have while applying for healthcare and dealing with this complicated and problematic system.
Senate Bill 348 or “Jake’s Law” creates a new offense for people who are texting while driving and cause an accident resulting in the death or serious bodily injury of another. A person who violates this law is guilty of a misdemeanor and if convicted is subject to imprisonment up to 3 years and/or a fine not to exceed $5,000. Additionally, 12 points will be assessed to the license of the person who violates this law.
In the area of domestic violence, Senator Zirkin was proud to support Senate Bill 333, which changes the standard of proof by which a judge can grant a final protective order. The standard of proof was changed from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence.” This bill will serve to protect victims of domestic violence in Maryland.
Senator Zirkin introduced Senate Bill 683 and fully supported Senate Bill 337 which increases the penalties for committing a crime of violence in the presence of a minor.
SB 337, with the support of Senator Zirkin, passed the Maryland General Assembly and enhances the penalty to imprisonment up to five years in addition to any other sentence for committing a violent crime in front of a minor who is at least 2 years old.
Senator Zirkin sponsored legislation to prohibit smoking on school grounds at all times. Although current regulations require each local school system to maintain a tobacco-free school environment, current law does not prohibit smoking on public school property while school is not in session. Thus, smoking continues to be permitted at after school functions, including weekend recreational activities. Senator Zirkin’s SB 288 would have authorized a school board to prohibit smoking on public school property at all times and impose penalties for violating the ban. The Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly but unfortunately the bill did not make it out of the House.
The Maryland General Assembly passed SB 460, which creates further protection for children from sexual abuse from persons in a position of authority. In responding to an egregious case in Montgomery County, the General Assembly acted to expand the definition of such persons to include school coaches and part-time employees. In doing so, the legislature acted to protect children in vulnerable positions from predators.
The State’s minimum wage was a highly debated issue this session. Numerous bills were introduced to raise the State’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. House Bill 295 passed both chambers increasing the minimum wage to $8.00 per hour in January 2015 $8.25 in July 2015, $8.75 in July 2016, $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018. The bill is intended to help low-wage earners and inject more money into the economy. Additionally, wages were increased for our important workers in the Developmental Disabilities Administration.
Local Issue: Stevenson University Take-Over of Rosewood
As you may know, the state is in ongoing discussion with Stevenson University for the takeover of the former Rosewood property. Stevenson University, for some time, has had a plan that includes amenities for both students and the community at large. Those amenities include, but are not limited to ball fields, classroom space, open space, parkland, and the like. The expansion of Stevenson University on it’s Owings Mills Campus has helped to transform the identity of Owings Mills, create education opportunities, and enhance the quality of life. Senator Zirkin is cautiously optimistic that an initial deal on this critical project will be reached in the very near future.