Wednesday, April 23, 2008

This bill was made for walkin’

Legislation on official state exercise awaits O’Malley’s signature

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Will Smith was 9 years old when he decided to rally the support of his friends, family and teachers to make walking the state exercise.

Nearly six years of lobbying later, the General Assembly voted on April 7 to do just that, and with the governor’s blessing as early as Thursday, Maryland is on its way to becoming the first in the nation to designate a state exercise.

‘‘Walking is something everyone can do,” said Smith, now a 14-year-old freshman at Montgomery Blair High School.

Smith came up with the idea when his third-grade class at East Silver Spring Elementary School was finishing a lesson on the state symbols. Maryland currently has 21 state symbols, such as the Patuxent River Stone as the state gem and the Chesapeake Bay retriever as the state dog.

‘‘My dad and I were looking them up, and we saw that there was no state exercise,” Smith said. His father, Bill Smith, is a member of ‘‘America Walks,” a nationwide movement aimed at promoting walkable communities.

‘‘So we said, ‘How about walking?’” Will Smith said.

East Silver Spring Elementary was the first school to participate in the now-countywide Walk to School Day, so it only seemed natural for the 9-year-old to gather a group, with some help from teachers and parents, to write letters to local legislators.

Their target was Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda, who was been honored for his leadership on walkable communities and ‘‘smart growth” initiatives by the Maryland Municipal League, and has worked on pedestrian safety initiatives in the past.

‘‘I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Bronrott said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will sign bills on May 13 and May 22. Christine Hansen, O’Malley’s deputy press secretary, said while ‘‘I think he would sign it,” all of the bills were still being reviewed.

Bronrott is more confident.

‘‘He simply said to me, ‘Bring me the bill. Put it on my desk. I will sign it,’” Bronrott said of a conversation with the governor at the beginning of the session. ‘‘We’re all looking forward to it.”

The walking bill failed in committee the first time it was introduced by Bronrott in 2002. When it was brought back in 2003, it passed in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, but was vetoed by former Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R). ‘‘We had to wait for a new governor,” Bronrott said.

When the bill was brought back this year, Bronrott asked state Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore to cross-file the legislation in the Senate as a stand-in for state Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, a supporter of the bill. Britt, (D-Dist. 47) of Landover Hills, died while in office before seeing its passage. The bill passed with a large majority in both the Senate and the House.

‘‘It was very poignant to have [Will] up there at the witness table, sitting there next to me, telling the committee, ‘I’m back,’” Bronrott said. ‘‘Really, the reasons for Maryland becoming the first state in the nation to adopt an official state exercise haven’t changed over the years. ... If anything, the health statistics are even more compelling.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 percent of children between ages 6 and 19 are overweight or obese. About 60 percent of adult Americans are overweight, said Anne Williams, a manager at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Physical inactivity is comparable to high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, or cigarette smoking when it comes to high risks for coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Michaeline R. Fedder, the director of government relations in Maryland for the American Heart Association, said the organization kicked off a walking campaign on April 16 that will encourage people to walk 30 minutes a day – the Surgeon General’s recommendation – and in particular target employers to allow their workers that half hour per day for physical activity.

‘‘When we testified for this bill, we said how wonderful it would be to hook it onto this campaign,” Fedder said.

Maryland symbols

Astrodon johnstoni: named state dinosaur in 1998, the Astrodon lived in Maryland during the Early Cretaceous period, from 95 to 130 million years ago.

Square dance: named the state folk dance in 1994, the dance refers to any dance in square formation.

Jousting: named official state sport in 1962. Maryland was the first state to designate an official sport.

Milk: named the state drink in 1998. Most Maryland cows are Holsteins, most easily recognized by their large black and white spots.

Maryland Blue Crab: named the state crustacean in 1989, the blue crab’s scientific name translates to ‘‘beautiful swimmer that is savory.”

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Source: Maryland State Archives