Md. lawmakers approve natural gas surcharge bill
ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Natural gas companies would be able to seek a surcharge of up to $2 on monthly gas bills to help recover costs for replacing aging infrastructure, in a measure approved by state lawmakers Thursday.
The Senate voted 35-12 after spirited debate. The House of Delegates’ vote was 120-17. The measures are similar and any differences will need to be worked out for the legislation to go to Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Lawmakers who supported the bill said companies need the cash to help replace aging pipes and address safety concerns. Supporters also say the surcharge would have to be approved by the Public Service Commission, and the money wouldn’t be charged until work was done to improve infrastructure.
“It’s not a pre-payment plan,” said Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles.
But opponents argued gas companies shouldn’t be asking for extra money at all to do a job they should have been doing all along.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, described it as “corporate welfare” for gas companies that have a monopoly and have not invested enough in infrastructure.
“Their business model underinvested,” Pipkin said. “Now they want the citizens of Maryland to bail them out.”
Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, also opposed the bill, saying the measure undermined long-standing regulatory rules.
“This is not about safety,” Madaleno said. “This is about ending the structure of regulation that we have had for a century in the state of Maryland about regulating gas companies. If we allow this to move forward, the companies will be able to come in and ask for a surcharge without having to go through a rate-setting case.”
Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, said he wasn’t pleased with the idea, but that ratepayers will end up paying one way or another. He also cited safety and environmental concerns.
“I’m not thrilled with $2, but I can tell you a lot of these pipes need repair,” Edwards said.
Lawmakers also are weighing a proposal by O’Malley to help develop offshore wind that would add about $1.50 each month to residential rates.
Maryland analysts estimated the surcharge on gas bills could raise $36 million a year, if the maximum charge is assessed on all existing gas customers, with about $24.6 million of that coming from residential customers. About $11.4 million would come from non-residential customers.
O’Malley outlines measures to stimulate job growth
ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday highlighted some initiatives he hopes will stimulate job growth by increasing training for positions in the highest demand and clearing some hurdles to employment for military families.
The Democrat has put $2.5 million in his budget proposal to create a competitive grant process to help get people the skills for jobs that are in high demand. The initiative, called the Employment Advancement Now Initiative, would encourage regional training collaborations among businesses, nonprofits, colleges and local governments. It would focus on industries such as traditional and advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and health care.
“This is really an effort that is driven by employers who say they have jobs that are open, they need more employees with the skills to fill them and so this EARN bill will help more moms and dads get the skills they need to enter those better jobs,” O’Malley said at a Senate hearing.
The governor also is backing a measure to speed up the professional licensing process for military families who move to Maryland from other states. O’Malley said more than 20 states already expedite the licensing process for veterans to move. The unemployment rate is 8.8 percent for veterans, and for post-9/11 veterans it is 9.7 percent, O’Malley said.
The measure would credit veterans for their military training and educational experience when they apply for occupational and professional licenses in the state. Veterans also would be able to get academic credit at state four-year colleges and community colleges for relevant military training and education.
“This will lower the cost of earning a degree, will allow veterans to get their degrees quicker, and the more degrees our people have the better that is for our state and our economy,” O’Malley said.
Earlier in the day, the governor joined members of the Maryland Federal Facilities Advisory Board to release a plan with 25 actions Maryland could take to take encourage innovation and job creation and federal facilities. They include aligning state resources with federal priorities and promoting cybersecurity business.
Maryland is home to more than 70 federal agencies and major military installations, according to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. More than 300,000 federal employees and service members live in Maryland and contribute $27.3 billion to the state’s economy, according to the department. Maryland also receives more federal research funding per capita than any other state in the country, DBED said.
Bill calls for state moratorium on fracking
ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Fracking opponents have introduced of a bill calling for a state moratorium on the natural gas drilling technique until studies are completed on its impact.
Delegate Heather Mizeur introduced a House bill on Thursday. Mizeur says it calls for an 18-month moratorium to protect against immediate pressure to drill once the first round of studies on the issue is completed.
Gov. Martin O’Malley issued an executive order in 2011 creating a commission to study the impact of fracking, but critics have said funding had not been provided. Last month, O’Malley proposed $1.5 million for stream sampling, economic analysis and a public health review.
Fracking uses water and chemicals to break up shale formations. Critics say it can pollute groundwater. Supporters say it can be an economic boon to rural areas.
Md. House panel considers bill to expand early voting
ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A bill that would extend early voting to the Sunday before Election Day and double the number of early voting centers was taken up Thursday by the House Ways and Means committee.
Long lines that caused Maryland voters to wait hours at polling stations on Election Day prompted lawmakers to seek solutions.
“We need to make sure that there is early voting the Sunday before the election. We also need to increase the number of early voting centers so that for the general election, at least, people don’t have to wait in such long lives,” Baltimore Democratic Delegate Samuel Rosenberg said during a committee hearing.
“We were ranked the third-longest wait on Election Day. That’s not an honor we want to maintain,” he added.
Maryland currently allows early voting over a six-day period and sets the early voting hours as 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on all days but Sunday, when they are noon to 6 p.m.
If passed, the bill would give voters a total of nine days to vote and double the number of early voting centers in every jurisdiction for the general election. It would leave the decision to increase voting centers for primaries to the State Board of Elections and the local elections boards in each county.
Supporters of the legislation told the House committee that increasing the number of early voting centers and early voting days would ensure that more voters could access the polls, including minorities who historically have met challenges when accessing the polls.
But opponents said that increasing the number of poll centers and workers creates an unnecessary budgetary strain and more work for poll workers. Dissenters also argued that counties should be allowed to decide whether or not they should increase the number of polling places necessary for an election.
Delegate Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican, said, “My concern is that we are overcompensating for an election that had an unusually large turnout.”
According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, nearly 430,000 residents voted early in the 2012 presidential election.
“Looking at the past two election cycles, early voting nearly doubled from 6.3 percent in 2010 to 11.7 percent in 2012. That trend will continue,” Rosenberg said.
In recent weeks, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has also proposed legislation to increase the number of early voting days from six to eight and to allow people to register at the polls just before they vote early.