Maryland Democrats Overturn 5 of GOP Governor's Vetoes
By Pamela Wood
Having a marijuana pipe or rolling papers won't be a crime in Maryland any longer.
The General Assembly, led by Democrats, overturned five of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's vetoes on Thursday. One result is that a bill making possession of drug paraphernalia a civil offense and setting a fine for smoking marijuana in public will become law.
The state will also receive more tax revenue from online hotel bookings. Police and prosecutors will have to prove cash and other assets are tainted before seizing them from suspects in criminal investigations. And an Annapolis arts center will get $2 million from the state. All of the laws go into effect next month.
The measures were vetoed by Hogan after last year's legislative session. General Assembly leaders plan to take up one more veto, of a bill that would allow felons to vote as soon as they leave prison rather than waiting to complete parole or probation. The House of Delegates voted Wednesday to override, but the Senate postponed its vote until Feb. 5, when a vacant seat in the chamber is expected to be filled.
The vote is expected to be close.
"We want to make sure everybody's here," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.
The bill decriminalizing things used for smoking marijuana -- such as rolling papers, pipes and bongs -- was debated extensively in both chambers Thursday.
Supporters of the bill said it fixes an oversight. In 2014, lawmakers reduced possession of small amounts of marijuana from a crime to a civil violation with a fine. But they failed to decriminalize smoking paraphernalia, meaning that a person with a joint of marijuana might be fined for having the drug but face a criminal misdemeanor charge for the rolling paper.
"This bill is really a correction to what we did a couple years ago," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Del. Ann Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat, said not decriminalizing paraphernalia would be like making eating blue crabs legal, but not Old Bay seasoning. That, she said, would be "inconceivable."
Opponents said police officers wouldn't be able to charge people for using marijuana while driving, but supporters said police could still use driving while under the influence laws to arrest people who drive while high.
Hogan's office issued a statement saying lawmakers refused to negotiate "and instead opted for the political spectacle of a veto override."
The statement continued: "With these votes taken, we are at least hopeful that members of the General Assembly can now partner with the governor to move Maryland forward, instead of dwelling on last year's issues."
The overrides of two hotel tax bill vetoes were cheered by the hotel industry, including Marriott International, which is headquartered in Montgomery County.
Supporters of the legislation -- mainly Democrats -- said the bills require online companies that book hotel rooms, such as Expedia and Airbnb, to pay hotel taxes to the state. Under current law, the companies charge consumers for the tax, but pocket some of the money. One of the laws applies statewide, while the other law specifically covers Howard County.
Katherine Lugar, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, cheered the legislature's action, saying it ensures that "online travel companies will no longer exploit this tax loophole." But a spokesman for the Travel Technology Association, which represents online companies, said the legislature "once again caved" to Marriott, which is seeking new headquarters and has raised concerns about Maryland's business climate.
Republicans said the issue should be put on hold because Maryland's comptroller has a filed a lawsuit that contends online firm Travelocity owes the state $6 million in hotel taxes.
As a result of another veto override, a new law will place the burden of proof on police and prosecutors when they seize assets such as cars and cash during investigations. The law also prohibits police from seizing less than $300 unless the money can directly be tied to drug distribution.
Current law allows local and state agencies to seize assets from someone even if they're not charged with a crime and forces individuals trying to recover assets to prove that the assets are not ill-gotten gains.
Supporters of the law said sometimes people have their belongings taken by police, are never charged with a crime and then must hire lawyers to get their belongings back. Others argued that the law ties the hands of police and prosecutors who are trying to crack down on the drug trade.
Both chambers easily overturned a line-item veto in the budget that eliminated $2 million for the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis. The arts center sits in the district of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, and many saw Hogan's veto as punitive.
The question that remains is whether the Senate can overturn Hogan's veto of a bill that would allow felons to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison, an issue that has generated strong feelings on both sides.
Under current law, they must first complete their parole or probation. An estimated 40,000 ex-convicts would be allowed to register to vote sooner if the bill becomes law.
The Senate plans to vote Feb. 5. By then, Democratic leaders expect to fill a seat that's been vacant since Karen Montgomery of Montgomery County resigned Jan. 1. The delay suggests that Senate leaders don't have the minimum 29 votes needed to override the governor's veto.
When the delay was announced, Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., the Republican whip, noted that 46 senators were present in the chamber, but 47 might be present on Feb. 5. "We're not waiting for that, are we?" he asked.
Miller immediately responded: "Yes."
Though the quick override of five vetoes represents a defeat for the Republican governor, Democratic leaders framed the overrides as policy decisions, not a political statement.
"For whatever reason, the governor chose to veto these bills and the legislature reaffirmed its commitment to their passage," Miller said. "This is not a shot across the bow at the governor. It's a question of good government and reaffirming the policy that we adopted."
Busch noted that all of the bills were approved with a clear majority last year -- some with bipartisan support.
"I think you have to stand up for the policy initiatives you passed," Busch said. "We're partners in government. We're not a rubber stamp in government."
The veto overrides nonetheless disappointed Republican lawmakers.
"I think on most of these issues, the majority party is on the wrong side of where most Marylanders are," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County.
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article
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