Approved claims would be paid with fees paid into the fund by owners of rental housing built before 1978. Fees would range from $500 per unit for a landlord out of compliance with the law to $50 per unit for those deemed "lead-safe" under the state's repair and cleanup requirements. Owners of units certified free of lead would pay nothing.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City also could participate in the self-insurance fund, McIntosh said. The agency has said that it lacks the money or insurance to pay millions of dollars in judgments and settlements to former tenants who allege that they were poisoned by lead in public housing.

But Norton objects that public funds would be used to launch the compensation fund — about $246,000 in the first year, according to legislative analysts — at a time when there isn't enough money for prevention.

Some suburban landlords also object. Lesa Hoover of the Washington-area Apartment and Office Building Association said that some of her members already have insurance and suggested that the fund might encourage more lawsuits.

Ben Frederick III, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, called the idea of a compensation fund "terrific" but said: "We need to slow down the abusive lawsuits."

A measure proposed by Dels. Nathaniel T. Oaks and Doyle L. Niemann, Democrats from Baltimore City and Prince George's County, respectively, would make it harder to win a lawsuit against a landlord who is in compliance with the state's lead-paint law. Under the bill, a court would presume that a child's lead poisoning did not occur in a state-regulated rental unit unless there was "clear and convincing" evidence to the contrary.

Niemann, an assistant state's attorney, called it "reasonable" to raise the standard of proof for lawsuits against property owners in the state's lead-paint program.

"You bring a child [into court] who clearly has problems, it's a very emotional sort of case,'' he said. "And then you've got the 'evil landlord.' ... It's easy for juries to side emotionally with the child."

Donald Gifford, a University of Maryland law professor who led a task force that crafted the state's 1994 lead-paint law, said he also believes that such a legal shift might be warranted, given the evidence that poisoning cases have declined since landlords began making state-mandated repairs.

But lawyers who represent children poisoned by lead decry the proposed change. Saul E. Kerpelman, who says his Baltimore law firm has 300 to 400 lead lawsuits pending, called it "a ridiculously high standard of proof," which he said would be unfair to his clients.

"If [landlords] are obeying the law, they've already fixed their houses, they're safe," Kerpelman said. He contends that state laws are not tight enough and that children still can be poisoned in a rental home deemed to be in compliance.

State lawmakers are tackling lead poisoning as the federal approach to the long-standing problem is taking contradictory tacks.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will decide this year whether to reduce by 50 percent its threshold for diagnosing lead poisoning in young children. An advisory panel said research indicates that there is no level of lead exposure that does not pose a risk to a young child's health.

The federal change would add 200,000 children to the 250,000 considered at-risk at the current exposure threshold. In Maryland, that level would have added 3,500 children to the 500 considered poisoned by lead in 2010, according to state figures.

Meanwhile, Congress has trimmed this year's funding for the CDC's lead poisoning prevention program from more than $29 million to $2 million.

Maryland got $600,000 this year from the CDC, $350,000 of which went to the Baltimore Health Department to follow poisoned children and to educate parents and property owners. Loss of the funding would "severely impair" the city's ability to help poisoned children, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city's health commissioner, in a statement.

"In a really sad way, it's one way to make the problem go away," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing in Columbia. "Stop looking for it — just at the time we're recognizing the scope of the problem is much bigger than previously thought."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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