Annapolis: New Septic Bill Struggles in the Senate


A bill to require Best Available Technology (BAT) for all new construction on septic everywhere in Maryland is struggling to survive in the Senate.

The bill, SB266, sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, would establish a 2012 regulation issued under former Gov. Martin O’Malley into law that required BAT systems for all new construction on septic, even beyond the critical areas.

Gov. Larry Hogan killed the O’Malley-era regulation last summer and limited BAT system requirements to the critical areas only. Hogan told the Maryland Association of Counties that the regulation “created a cost-prohibitive burden for Maryland homeowners and businesses” outside the critical area. BAT systems can cost up to $7,500 or more per home than conventional septic systems.

Critical areas are considered to be within 1,000 feet of the Bay or coastal areas.

Vote falls short

On Thursday a 22-23 vote fell short of advancing the bill, but it was brought back to life moments later when Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, asked to reconsider the vote, although he did not change his vote.

Currie’s motion to reconsider cleared the way for Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton on Friday to offer floor amendments that would prioritize BAT requirements based on available funding in the Bay Restoration Fund. The amendment would have allowed conventional septic systems outside the critical areas if funding was unavailable.

The amendments failed 20-26.

Shortly after Middleton’s amendment failed, Sen. Edward Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, offered amendments to revert back to requiring BAT systems in the critical areas only. Those amendments were laid over until this week.

“It makes no sense to put an enhanced nutrient removal system in the middle of a farmland 25 miles from any critical area in the state and require [homeowners] to pay any more than necessary,” Reilly said. “This focuses the efforts and the money on the most important parts of the state.”

Senate President Mike Miller originally voted against the bill on Thursday but had a change of heart Friday after Reilly’s amendments were laid over. He asked the body to reach a compromise.

“Let’s pass the bill,” Miller said.

Flush tax money

The measure, if passed, would provide funding, if available, from the Bay Restoration Fund — where the “flush tax” goes — to subsidize the cost difference between conventional and BAT systems, currently estimated at $7,500, according to a legislative analysis.

An $8,000 fine would be levied for any home not using a BAT systems where required.

O’Malley put the regulation in place just weeks after signing the controversial Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, which put tighter limits on septic in subdivisions but preserved some local control over septic use.

Rural lawmakers and local governments reeled at the time and said it would put too many restrictions on development and was an affront to property rights of farmers and landowners.

The Act established the size and scale of major developments using septic systems as a way to encourage development closer to priority funding areas that could be served by sewage treatment plants.

by Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Large Chicken Houses spur Health Concerns


With no help from their state representatives, some residents of the lower Eastern Shore have sought help from a Montgomery County Democrat to address health problems blamed on an explosion of large poultry operations.

Respiratory problems have been linked to ammonia, hydrogen sulfides and particulates venting from rows of large industrial fans in chicken houses. Large poultry operations have increased dramatically in the last decade, according to residents who testified in Annapolis on Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring the Community Healthy Air Act, a bill that would require Maryland Department of the Environment to determine if the agency, and large scale poultry operations, are in compliance with Clean Air Act standards — specifically pollutants from concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFOs.

One-year study called too short

The one-year study would require MDE to monitor air quality near poultry operations, but Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., a nonprofit that represents chicken growers, says the one-year study would not be long enough to yield accurate results and questions “whether MDE has the money and expertise to do what this bill will require.”

“CAFOs can be significant sources of air pollution,” said Brooke Harper, chair of the Maryland-NAACP Environmental Justice Committee, before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee on Tuesday. “Exposure to airborne contaminants have been associated with adverse health effects such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”

Harper said the required study under the bill, SB773, would help determine if Wicomico County’s 100 chicken operations are a cause of Maryland’s highest rates of lung and heart disease. She said Wicomico also has the highest rates of emergency room visits due to asthma.

Somerset County resident Sam Burley told the committee his quality of life has drastically changed since six chicken houses went up 240 feet from his home. He said the operation houses 275,000 birds and his property value has dropped dramatically.

“No law abiding citizen would think of going to his next door neighbor and taking something of value, but effectively that has happened to us,” he said.

He said he could smell chicken waste inside his home.

Chicken house dwarfs home

Somerset county resident Lisa Inzerillo showed the committee an aerial photo of her house dwarfed by a chicken house.

She said she asked her local officials to help zone the “Walmart style complex” away from her small farm, but instead saw officials giving deference to the poultry industry.

She said the study would go far in determining the health impacts of chicken houses.

“We are not trying to do away with the poultry industry, but it is time they started respecting our right to clean air,” she said.

She told the committee that bio-filters on exhaust fans is widely used in Europe and would help mitigate much of the pollution from chicken houses.

Michelle Protani-Chesnick, a Wicomico County chicken farmer, said she was a responsible steward of her farm and has raised a family on her poultry farm with no adverse health issues to her family.

“We don’t have health related poultry problems,” she said. “We should be violently ill constantly and we’re not.”

Protani-Chesnick said she was concerned the study would not be done properly.

“You would really need to do a much longer [study] on more than just one farm to get an honest result,” she said.

Delmarva Poultry Inc., a nonprofit group that has represented the chicken growers since 1948, agreed that the results of a one-year study would mostly likely be inconclusive.

“Incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly gathered data could lead to conclusions that could impact how growers operate their farms,” the nonprofit said in a press release on Feb. 22. “These conclusions could lead to additional state environmental requirements. If a study is to be done, it needs to be done right and this bill, we believe, will not produce accurate results.”

They noted that the bill’s sponsor was not from the Eastern Shore.

By Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Maryland Annual Corporate Filing Fee would be Raised Based on Company Assets


Maryland businesses have come out strongly against a proposed change in the annual corporate filing fee that would go from a flat fee structure to a progressive tax based on a company’s assets.

The annual corporate filing fee is currently a flat fee of $300 in order to maintain the legal entity’s existence in the state; the progressive tax could climb as high as $4,000 based on a company’s fixed assets.

Sponsors of the bill say they’ve received massive support from constituents with small businesses.

“This bill is about fairness,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard County. “And it attempts to put businesses on a graduated scale based on their taxable assets.”

Fees would drop for 250,000 firms

Under the measure, HB691, 233,000 entities in Maryland would see the annual fee drop to $150 and another 19,000 would see a decrease to $200.  Around 11,000 businesses would continue to pay $300, according to the fiscal note.

In 2003, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich raised the fee from $100 to $300.

“Essentially what we would like to do is not make Ben Kramer Save the Puppies LLC to have to pay the same amount as Under Armour,” Atterbeary said, using the name of a committee member.

But once fixed assets pass $50,000, the fee more than doubles to $750 and climbs north to $4,000 for companies with fixed assets above $200,000.

“Why should any small business pay the same exact $300 fee…as a Northrop Grumman,” said one of the bill’s cosponsors, Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, in testimony before the House Economic Matters Committee on Wednesday. He said he had received many complaints in recent years about the regressive nature of the tax.

“This does represent a tax break for entities we often say we want to support,” he said.

Del. Chris Adams, R-Dorchester, said the fee under the bill appears to be more of a tax increase than a fee increase.

“We’re getting away from the idea that there’s a fee that we pay for the privilege of doing business in the state of Maryland and moving [it towards a tax], Adams said. He challenged Morhaim’s testimony referring to the fee as a “tax.” Morhaim quickly apologized for the characterization.

Adams said many CPAs in his district complained more about the proposal than the current sick leave bill moving through legislature.

“I got more phone calls on this bill than I did the sick pay bill,” he said. “I got a lot of opposition from the business community on this one.”

Champe McCulloch of Maryland Associated General Contractors said the progressive tax would punish businesses that investment in Maryland.

“Do you as the General Assembly want to hold business that make substantial capital investments in Maryland in disdain and [assess] a higher fee because they are committed to Maryland and committed to investing in Maryland,” McCulloch asked the committee.

Assets don’t correlate with income

Many who testified against the bill said using fixed assets could raise the fee for companies with higher fixed assets, like trucks and tools, than a small firm with very little fixed assets that makes considerably more from services, like a law firm.

Mike O’Halloran, Maryland director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told the committee that the small businesses the bill aims to help can easily have more than $50,000 in fixed assets.

“You can get up to $50,000 in taxable assets fairly quickly,” O’Halloran said. He said a caterer he knew would see an increase simply because the kitchen equipment easily exceeds $50,000 in value.

Atterbeary said the proposal was revenue neutral.

The initial expenditures to administer the new fee structure comes to $500,000 in fiscal 2018 and $66,000 annually. Revenues are expected to increase by $435,000 annually.

But Maryland Chamber of Commerce in written testimony said the bill was an attempt at a revenue increase.

“The State’s Department of Assessments and Taxation has imposed filing fees to offset the administrative cost to the State of updating corporate documents each year,” the Chamber said.  “To replace the traditional fee with a scaled fee is a veiled attempt to increase State revenue at the expense of small businesses.”

By Dan Menefee

MD Senate Finance Committee Approves Mandated Reimbursement Increases for Mental Health


Several hundred rallied in Annapolis Thursday in support of the Keep The Door Open Act, a bill that would increase funding for mental health and addiction treatment and tie the reimbursement rate for service providers to the Consumer Price Index.

A few hours later, the Senate Finance Committee voted to send the bill, SB 476, to the full Senate after 16 groups representing hospitals, service providers and nonprofits spoke in support of the bill.

Opposition from two cabinet officials at the hearing won a small concession from Finance Chair Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, who added an amendment that would sunset the act in five years.

“Some of the testimony against the bill is very notable,” Middleton said.

Gov. Larry Hogan proposed a 2% increase in his fiscal 2018 budget. But supporters of the bill say a mandatory formula increasing payments based on the price index was needed to maintain a stable workforce and increase access to patients in their communities.

“This is really about keeping the door open for our constituents so they have access to mental health and substance abuse services in their community,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard County, at Thursday’s hearing. The bill currently has 33 co-sponsors in the Senate out of 47 members, including three Republicans. A similar bill passed the Senate and House last year but got hung up on differing amendments and was never enacted.

Guzzone said treatment should be available long before a patient ends up in the emergency room and easily accessible after release from the hospital. He said over a million Marylanders are in need of mental health and addiction treatment.

People in crisis

“We’ve been dealing with people in crisis, and having people end up in crisis in a hospital room is not the solution,” Guzzone said. “We need to [provide services] before they end up in the hospital.”

Under the bill, service providers would be reimbursed based on the Consumer Price Index averaged over the prior three years. Currently that average is 3.24% for the Baltimore-Washington region, according to the fiscal analysis.

General fund expenditures increase by nearly $179 million through fiscal 2022 and are matched by $170 million in federal Medicaid dollars over the same period.

Lori Doyle, public policy director for the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland, said inadequate funding would increase costs to the state in other areas and make it difficult to maintain a workforce.

Keeping people whole

“We’re going to continue to spend money on this population, It’s just a matter of where you want to spend it,” Doyle told the committee. “You can spend it in emergency departments, inpatient care and in our jails and prisons, or do you want to keep people whole and with their families?”

She said the federal reimbursement rate was paying just $10 to $12 an hour. “We used to hire college graduates but we can’t get them anymore,” she said.

She said 13 of Maryland’s 24 counties have a federally recognized shortfall in the mental health workforce and that “financial neglect” of service providers is evident in the rise of drug overdoses and suicides.

Brian Frazee of the Maryland Hospital Association said emergency room visits related to behavioral health have increased by 18% while all other visits have declined by 5%. He said Medicaid covered ER visits since 2013 have increased by nearly 30% at a cost of $47 million.

Administration says mandate inflexible

Marc Nicole, deputy secretary of Budget and Management, defended Hogan’s commitment to increase funding for service providers. He said the 2% increase when confronting a $544 million deficit demonstrated a clear commitment without the need for a mandate.

“These rate increases are mandated and quite costly,” Nicole said. He said the mandate would climb from $17 million in 2018 to $76 million by 2022. He said during that same period the fiscal deficit could reach $1.2 billion.

“We have shown our commitment on this,” Nicole said.

The administration should be allowed to make the funding decisions for service providers on an annual basis, he said.

Barbara Bazron, deputy director of behavioral health, echoed Nicole and said the compulsory rate increases in the bill create an “unsustainable fiscal impact” on the general fund that discriminates against other types of providers.

“The administration believes it is not fiscally prudent or socially responsible to mandate an expenditure that will likely balloon to $76 million,” she said. “By mandating that the administration dedicate Maryland’s scarce resources to only one type of provider [the bill] removes the flexibility for us to focus on all treatment providers.”

By Dan Menefee

80,000 Maryland Salaried Workers could get Overtime Pay under Proposed Bill


A bill that would make 80,000 more salaried employees in Maryland eligible for overtime pay is not sitting well with business and nonprofit groups, whose salaried employees often work more than 40 hours a week.

Del. Jimmy Tarlau

But the bill’s sponsor says companies have avoided paying overtime for decades by unfairly classifying hourly workers as salaried employees.

The bill, HB665, would increase the salary cap for white-collar and service workers currently exempt from overtime pay to $47,476 up from the current $23,660. That would be $913 per week, up from $455 weekly.

“This salary level has not been changed since 2004 and is now less than the poverty level for a family of four,” said Del. Jimmy Tarlau, D-Prince George’s, in testimony before the House Economic Matters Committee on Tuesday.

The bill mirrors a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act attempted by President Obama but now tied up in court. The rule change was to go into effect on Dec. 1, but U.S. District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III in Texas, granted a nationwide injunction against the rule change a week before it was to take effect.

Tarlau wants to advance the rule change at the state level because of low expectations that President Trump’s new pick to head the U.S. Department of Labor, R. Alexander Acosta, will defend the ruling in court. Maryland’s Wage and Hour Law has traditionally been tied to the federal standards, according to the legislative staff analysis.

By classifying ordinary workers as “supervisors,” companies have exempted many of their workers from receiving overtime pay, Tarlau told the committee on Tuesday.

“This means that a supervisor at a McDonald’s who makes $455 a week might be working 76 hours a week without extra compensation and might actually only be making $7/hour or less than the minimum wage,” Tarlau said. “We ought to close this loophole and restore this law’s coverage and the right to overtime pay to what they were back when America was a great place for working Americans.”

Fewer workers qualify for overtime

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, told the committee that 60% of the population was covered under federal law up until 1975 and received overtime after 40 hours of work. He said currently less than 8% of working adults receive overtime pay because of the low salary threshold.

If passed, the income levels would have to be recalibrated every three years, following a formula based on the wages of the poorest area of the U.S. It would be the 40th percentile of full-time wages “in the lowest-wage Census Region,” which is currently the Southeastern United States and calculates to $913 per week, or $47,476 annually.

But nonprofit and business groups say raising the income threshold for the exemption is unaffordable.

“Our workforce is the backbone of the community services,” said Lauren Kallins, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Community Services, which represents over 100 service providers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “We are Medicaid providers. Unlike other businesses we are also prohibited from passing on costs or fees to the people we support.”

Kallins said most of the providers are nonprofits operating on thin margins due to the Medicaid reimbursement rate that is only a smidgen above the minimum wage.  She said 67% of the workforce she represents, roughly 13,000 salaried employees, would be eligible for overtime pay under the bill.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said the bill would reduce wages and benefits, discourage bonuses and advancement opportunities and reduce hours and income stability to workers. She also said a small business owner would be unable to allow exempt workers with children to work from home if they were reclassified as hourly employees.

Restaurants impacted

“In our industry we have a very narrow profit margin and very high labor costs,” said Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. He said if the bill passes the industry would likely move to reclassify chefs and managers to hourly status, which would affect morale and reduce the fringe benefits they receive as exempt employees.

“Many of those employees have worked hard to reach a management level and they would view the reclassification as a demotion,” Thompson said.

Tarlau said companies could either pay the overtime or hire more workers. He said the time off to spend with family was sacrosanct and and the intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“Overtime regulations serve a double purpose,” Tarlau said. “By requiring time-and-a-half pay after 40 hours in a week, they discourage excessive work hours but they also more fairly compensate employees who do work long hours. If an employer needs to keep an employee at work beyond the 40 hours of a normal work week, making it harder for the employee to care for her family, engage in civic life, or even work a second job, [the employer] should pay for that time.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act was a Roosevelt-era law that established the 40-hour work-week and provided for overtime pay at 1.5 times the hourly rate for workers. Since it was enacted in 1938 it has been adjusted for inflation eight times, most significantly in 1975 during the Ford administration and then not until 2004 when the Bush administration set the exemption floor at $23,660.

White- and blue-collar workers have been made exempt from overtime by merely giving them a title.

Texas ruling

The Texas court agreed that “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” was exempt from overtime but also found that Congress made no salary test for the exemption. But the U.S. Department of Labor appealed, insisting the 1938 law gave them the power to set new salary thresholds for white-collar workers through regulation as had happened under the Ford and Bush administrations.

by Dan Menefee 

Attorney General Frosh asks for $1 million to Exercise New Powers to Sue Federal Government


Hours after the House of Delegates gave final approval to broad new powers for Attorney General Brian Frosh to sue the federal government, he was in front of a House committee asking for $1 million a year to hire five lawyers for his new mission.

The delegates approved the new powers for the Democratic AG to go after the Trump administration without the permission of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in a straight party line vote 89-50, with all Republicans opposed.

Republicans on the House Health and Government Operations Committee wondered why the fiscal analysis of the just passed Maryland Defense Act, SJ5, and its House companion, HJ3, stated that “The Office of the Attorney General can use existing resources to handle any litigation initiated as a result of the resolution,” yet here he was asking for a million dollars in mandated spending in HB913.

The mandated spending would not kick in until the fiscal 2019 budget begins July 1, 2018. For the next 16 months, Frosh would be using existing attorneys in his main office, but they would be pulled from other duties, he said.

The new spending mandate was sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who also was the lead sponsor of the House joint resolution. The bill contains the same language as the resolutions authorizing the attorney general to pursue lawsuits.

The bill and the resolution explicitly mention “ensuring the availability of affordable health care; safeguarding public safety and security; protecting civil liberties; and preserving and enhancing the economic security of workers and retirees” along with protection of consumer rights, pensions, the environment and “the general health and well-being of [state] residents.”

A key difference between what the House passed Wednesday morning and the bill in committee is the joint resolutions go into effect immediately without the signature of the governor and HB913 is regular legislation that needs the governor’s OK.

“We’re opposed to mandated spending,” said Hogan communication director Doug Mayer, who refused to speculate about whether the governor would veto the bill. Hogan has consistently pushed legislation to reduce spending mandates, not increase them, since they control over 80% of the discretionary general fund budget.

Asked how they arrived at a figure of $1 million for five new assistant attorneys general and support staff, Rosenberg and Frosh said the model was a federalism division in the office of the Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a Republican.

Pruitt has been nominated as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued 14 times.

Frosh said he might wind up suing Pruitt if he tries to dismantle the Chesapeake Bay clean-up, an EPA program that was the subject of a Pruitt lawsuit.

By Len Lazarick

Op-Ed: Legislating Death with Dignity needs Debate with Dignity by Michael Collins


The introduction again of legislation that would allow people with terminal illnesses to obtain lethal doses of drugs with which to kill themselves has reignited the debate about assisted suicide in Maryland.

The attraction of the “Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer Death End-of-Life Option Act,” HB370 and SB354, is understandable. Who has seen people in the last stages of a terminal illness and not thought, “What can we do to ease their suffering?” Whose heart has not gone out to families whose loved ones endure often intense pain as they die?

I’m sure many people have thought, “If I am ever in that condition, I don’t know how long I’d want to hang on.”

These laws’ advocates often use intensely personal tales, such as that of former Annapolis Alderman Dick Israel, who succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, and, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer, who moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s assisted-suicide law.

Yet, that the passage of these laws relies so heavily on their raw emotional appeal should make us pause. We need to ask some hard questions about these issues and think just as hard about their potentially ugly answers.

Have we exhausted all options related to palliative care? If there are laws and regulations that onerously restrict physicians from prescribing the painkillers that can alleviate a terminal patient’s suffering, shouldn’t we change them first?

If enacted, this law will establish the principle that people in Maryland have a right to “death with dignity,” as the legislation was called when first introduced two years ago. With that accomplished, what is there to prevent the law from expanding to allow physician-administered suicide?

Slippery slope

In the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, physicians are helping people with treatable mental illnesses—like depression—commit suicide. And, numerous doctors have become “angels of death,” euthanizing terminally ill patients without their consent.

A 2012 paper by J. Pereira in Current Oncology, found that despite safeguards built into so-called “death with dignity” laws, most safeguards are ignored.

For example, in 2005, more than 540 people in Holland were euthanized without providing explicit consent. In the Flemish part of Belgium, 208 people were euthanized without consent because they were in a coma.

Pereira’s study concluded that in 30 years, the Netherlands has slowly moved from euthanasia for terminal illnesses to euthanasia for psychological distress. That point was driven home last year in a widely reported case where a woman in her 20s—who did not have a terminal illness—was euthanized in Holland. She had been a victim of sexual trauma and her psychiatrist determined that she had untreatable Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.


Proponents of so-called “death with dignity” argue a patient should have the right to self-administer a lethal dose of prescription drugs. But what about people with disabilities? Such a law is one lawsuit from being an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) violation for those who cannot self-administer.

Opponents of capital punishment point to the Hippocratic Oath to keep doctors from assisting in legal executions. They have also attacked drug companies for providing the lethal cocktails for executions. And they have pointed to botched executions as reason to end all executions.

Would doctors who prescribe lethal doses of drugs be violating their Hippocratic Oath? Could they be subject to professional sanctions?
Will drug companies have an incentive to create more powerful poisons so a patient does not have to swallow 100 capsules?
If even medically supervised executions can be botched, what can we assume about patient suicide? If not supervised, what happens? Could a patient be in a permanent vegetative state requiring life support? If supervised, would more active measures be required?
Proponents of such abortion-inducing drugs as Plan-B have sued pharmacists who refuse to dispense abortificients because it violates their conscience. Will pharmacists be liable to lawsuits if they refuse to prescribe life-ending drugs?


The introduction of euthanasia will place Maryland’s health-care professionals on a collision course with numerous ethical and moral dilemmas. Anti-capital punishment activists argue that the Hippocratic Oath prohibits doctors from assisting with legal executions. Can it be made to square with euthanasia?

What about those with religious objections? Will a Muslim doctor be able to refuse to write a prescription for lethal drugs based on his religious beliefs? Will a pharmacist who is an evangelical Protestant be able to refuse to fill such a prescription on the same grounds?

Grim efficiency?

In 2008, Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroop were denied further cancer treatments by Oregon’s state-run Medicaid program because their cancers were in advanced stages. They were informed, however, that it would pay for their assisted suicide drugs.

Opponents of Oregon’s assisted suicide have noted potential conflicts of interest between doctors who approve assisted suicide and their employment with health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

Will Maryland’s Medicaid provide suicide drugs? What about insurance policies purchased through Maryland’s health exchange? Will we create a two-tier system where the wealthy with private insurance get their expensive cancer treatment while the poor on Medicaid get offered suicide drugs?

I fear that many of the people now holding out the promise of “death with dignity” are exploiting our compassion, anxieties, and fears in order to move us—incrementally, at first—toward a truly nightmarish future in which human life will be easily and callously disposed of in service to some amorphous “greater good.” Will we soon have ambulatory “dignity” clinics, like the dystopian future presented in the 1970s film “Soylent Green?” Recall how the Edward G. Robinson character “went home,” a euphemism for assisted suicide.

Before we pass the “End-of-Life Option Act” law, we need a debate with dignity, that strips away the euphemisms, asks the hard questions and gets the unvarnished answers.

Michael Collins can be reached at

E-ZPass System Under Attack in Annapolis


Excessive penalties and poor customer service at the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system have put some Marylanders on the path to “toll bankruptcy,” Sen. Roger Manno told the Senate Finance Committee last week.

“Folks [are] exasperated because they’ve been caught in a system that is not working,” Manno said.

Broad enforcement powers enacted in 2013 to address toll violations have led to wage attachments, financial hardship and non-renewal of vehicle registrations at MVA, witnesses testified.

Sen. Roger Manno

Sen. Roger Manno

“The penalty structure that we set several years ago in the General Assembly was not intended to be punitive,” Manno said. “It was not intended to strip people of their rights and their assets.”

But the head of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the toll facilities, told the senators that only a tiny percentage of drivers have been affected.

“I don’t want to minimize the pain that certain customers have gone through, but running the numbers only .001% wound up in a circumstance” like this, said Kevin Reigrut, MDTA’s new executive director. He said 99.3% of Maryland toll customers are paying their tolls without incident.

“MDTA has no intention of wanting to be in the bill collection business,” Reigrut said. He said the 2013 law gave MDTA the power to address extraordinary circumstances — but the agency has to hear about them.

In the past two years, the state collected $223 million in toll fines.


Biggest problems at ICC

Almost all the citizens who testified for the bill had problems with the InterCounty Connector, Route 200, the state’s all-electronic video toll road connecting Gaithersburg and Laurel. The ICC uses video snapshots of license plates to bill commuters who don’t subscribe to E-ZPass or when subscribers’ transponders fail to register at any of eight tolling gantries along the route.

Manno’s office has been inundated with pleas to help settle minor toll violations that snowballed into “tens of thousands of dollars” in penalties – after citizens failed get a resolution from E-Z Pass or MDTA. Manno’s District 19 in Montgomery County includes part of the ICC.

“The myriad of problems that they encountered with MDTA steered them toward a path of accruing civil penalties and exorbitant debt: late bill notices in the mail, lost checks, and inconsistent and confusing customer service,” said Manno in written testimony.

The 2013 law gave MDTA the power to block registrations renewals and refer past due accounts to the state’s Central Collection Unit.

A $50 fine kicks in for each violation not paid after 45 days. After an additional 45 days the debt is transferred to CCU where a 17% fee is tacked on.

Manno is sponsoring a bill, SB139, co-sponsored by most of the Montgomery County’s Democratic senators and two Republicans, to reduce the $50 fine per violation to 25% of the original toll — and prohibit MDTA from referring delinquent accounts to CCU.

“If it’s a two-dollar toll the penalty would be 50 cents,” Manno said.

Of the 5.1 million violations in 2016, 4.7 million occurred on the ICC, according to a legislative analysis.

Motorists testify on ‘toll hell’

Manno told committee members that technical problems with transponders and credit card processing mistakes started motorists on a path to “toll hell.” Often motorists were unaware of any problems while they continued to accrue additional tolls and penalties.

After an expired credit card prevented replenishment of her E-ZPass account, Deborah Liverpool of Silver Spring said 17 tolls of less than $3 each swelled to almost $1,000 in fines in one month.

She said penalties had already accrued before she was able to provide new credit card information.

Stephanie Grogoza of Rockville said her elderly parents received a collection notice of $300 for less than $9 in tolls incurred on the ICC. Grogoza said her parents, one retired Navy and the other a bank auditor, never received the initial bill.

“If they got a bill they would have paid it,” she said. “They play by the rules.”

John McNamara, a retired Foreign Service officer from Derwood, said he was billed twice for the same trip on the ICC, once on his E-ZPass account and later with a video toll he received by mail. He said E-ZPass refused to accept proof of the mistake by email. He was told he had to send a fax or visit a service center.

In written testimony, the Maryland Motor Truck Association said a member’s registration renewal was blocked due to $23,000 in tolls and fines that had accumulated since 2008.

Notices were sent to the wrong mailing address even though MVA records were correct.

“MDTA mailed these notices of tolls due to an address this company has not occupied for many years,” said Louis Campion of the truck association. “He is not a toll avoider.  His E-ZPass account has never been negative and last year [he] paid $50,000 in tolls.”

Jen Diamond, of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a group that advocates for low income Marylanders said the 2013 law was a “classic case of unintended consequences” and a “draconian approach to funding Maryland’s infrastructure.”

“We’ve heard horror stories of clients forced to file for bankruptcy in order to address a few unpaid E-ZPass tolls,” Diamond said.

Four notices sent

MDTA chief Reigrut said that no fewer than four notifications are sent to the vehicle owner before the violations are sent to CCU

“For the 99.3% of our customers who are paying as expected, we have an obligation to ensure that we are able to collect the tolls that are due,” Reigrut said.

He said his agency has the power to recall accounts from CCU only if a mistake was made by MDTA or E-ZPass

“This is a punitive, if not predatory, collections process by a government against its people,” Manno said in an interview Monday. “Tell me where else in commerce in the real world where a penalty scheme like this exists.”

“There are 340,000 Marylanders whose accounts have been forwarded to CCU,” Manno said. “That’s one in every 18 Marylanders in collection at CCU for toll violations.”

Toll bonds could see downgrade

All MDTA toll-backed revenue bonds are subject to trust agreements that require revenues be maintained at certain levels. Historically, Maryland has enjoyed stellar bond ratings because MDTA’s board has the authority to set toll rates without  legislative interference.

“The bill necessitates a change to the trust agreement with MDTA’s bondholders and/or prompts a reduction in MDTA’s bond ratings,” according to the fiscal note.

“Bills like SB139 could be problematic for our Trust Agreement,” said Cheryl Sparks, communications director for MDTA. “It could compromise our statutory independence and have a negative effect on the MDTA credit worthiness and lead to higher bond/loan rates.”

In 2015 and 2016 the state collected $91 million and $132 million respectively in toll fines.

Collections unit wants to place liens

While Manno wants to take accounts away from CCU, the state government collection agency now wants the power to file property liens as proposed in HB104, a Department of Budget and Management bill aimed at quicker collections.

CCU Director Anthony Fuegett said the agency’s primary tool of wage garnishments was time consuming, taking up to three years.

“We don’t garnish enough people,” Fuegett told the House Appropriations Committee Jan. 31, referring to findings in two years of legislative audits.

Jesse Lawyer, deputy director of CCU told the committee that E-ZPass account “are a large part of our portfolio.To date we’ve brought on 1.9 million accounts.”  Each represents a single violation.

by Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Third Effort for the Right to Die Legislation


After two years of dead ends, Maryland lawmakers have again introduced measures to give terminally ill Marylanders the right to die using doctor prescribed medications.

The nation’s oldest end-of-life advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, brought nearly 200 supporters to Annapolis on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to pass the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer End of Life Options Act.”

“As a physician I’ve always seen my vocation as an obligation to work with my patients as honestly and professionally as I can, respecting their sense of autonomy, their values and their priorities in order to use my skills to support them throughout their life,” Del. Terri Hill, M.D., a Columbia Democrat and physician, told the crowd of supporters and fellow lawmakers. “When that support is to cure or mediate, that’s terrific, but my obligation to support them and respect them doesn’t end when I run out of options.”

“Support for this legislation is about completing that contract,” said Hill.

The legislation would allow a terminally ill adult patient, who is not mentally ill, to end his or her life using doctor prescribed medications.

Sponsors mostly Democrats

Del. Terri Hill at the podium explains why she supports end-of-life options, as co-sponsors Del. Shane Pendergrass, right, and Sen. Guy Guzzone look on. photo.

Del. Terri Hill at the podium explains why she supports end-of-life options, as co-sponsors Del. Shane Pendergrass, right, and Sen. Guy Guzzone look on. photo.

The Senate Bill, SB354, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, has 14 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The House version, HB370, sponsored again by Del. Shane Pendergrass, has 44 co-sponsors, only one a Republican, Delegate Chris West, R-Baltimore County.

This is the third year in a row Pendergrass has sponsored the legislation, and she now chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee that will hear it again.

A Senate version last year received an unfavorable report from the Judicial Proceedings Committee and was withdrawn by the sponsor, Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick.

The House committee never took a vote on the measure after the Senate panel killed the bill.

In 2015 House and Senate versions also failed to clear their committees.

Tough issue to talk about

“It’s a tough issue,” Guzzone said. “We have a hard time in this country talking about death and dying and we have to have that conversation, it’s critically important.”

As the rally wound down a Rockville resident spoke passionately in support of the legislation as it will ultimately affect her and her son — and could have made her father’s death more dignified.

“I love life. I love being a parent to my 17-year-old son and working toward becoming a minister, a journey I started several years ago,” said Rockville resident Alexa Fraser, who was diagnosed in December with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

“I just want the ability to choose a peaceful death with my family around me rather than one filled with pain, or drowning in my bodily fluids, or with my abdomen bursting as happened to a good friend who…died of abdominal cancer,” said Fraser.

She said her father killed himself as a result of dealing with Parkinson’s, but it took three attempts before he succeeded.

“It didn’t go well,” she said. “First he tried pills, then cutting his wrists, neither worked, and finally he used a gun.”

In a “deep twist of fate” Fraser said her son was recently diagnosed with MS.

“If, when he is old and sick…and concludes that using the death with dignity provision is his choice, I would support that for him,” she said.

There is greater optimism this year for passage said Sean Crowley, director of media relations for Compassion & Choices.

“Naturally when you have a new issue legislators are unfamiliar with it and it takes time,” he said. He said recent polling data in Maryland and the nation show significant support for end-of-life choice.

“Sixty-five percent of Maryland voters support medical aid in dying and 60% of physicians either support it or are neutral on the issue,” Crowley said. “It’s a strong majority in both cases.”

Crowley said Gov. Larry Hogan was initially opposed to it but has signaled he is now more open to it.

Opposition gearing up

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic bishops, is gearing up to oppose the legislation, as are groups representing people with disabilities, part of a coalition called Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

“It’s critical that we protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from this dangerous legislation,” said Lori Scott, board member of The Arc Maryland. “One of the top reasons people want to end their lives is to avoid being a burden to loved ones. Sadly, people with disabilities often feel they are a burden throughout their entire life.”

“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are frequently coerced into making decisions that are not in their best interest because they are led to believe it will please a health care provider or family member,” Scott said. “It is impossible to legislate the safeguards needed to protect these individuals from the dangers of physician-assisted suicide.”

by Dan Menefee

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