Assembly wraps up in a flurry

Sun Staff

  Legislative scorecard Score-keeping is one of the great political pastimes in Annapolis. Here are some of the session's winners and losers:

The winners
Parris N. Glendening
From gun locks to tobacco spending to budget priorities, the governor prevailed by using the full resources of his office.

Bishop Robinson
Thankful for adult supervision at the state's juvenile justice agency, legislators gave the new secretary free rein to run it without oversight.

Thomas V. Mike Miller
The Senate president snatched the governor's gun-safety bill from a balky committee and rammed it to approval. Senators responded by voting to give their new office building his name.

Johns Hopkins
The private medical institution won a state pledge for $150 million to pay for new buildings and faculty. The largess is part of Maryland's anti-cancer initiative.

Christopher J. Van Hollen
The up-and-coming senator from Montgomery seized the spotlight on guns and tobacco, boosting his chances for higher office.

The losers
National Rifle Association
The gun lobby's hissy-fit commercial only called attention to Glendening's victory.

The billion-dollar surplus yielded nothing for income tax relief.

See above. The GOP's loss is that the public isn't up in arms.

They tried, but couldn't flush the septics bill out of a House committee.

Trial lawyers
The supposedly powerful lobby became a legislative punching bag on late fees, among other issues.

Mixed results
They prevailed on wages for school construction jobs, but couldn't get bargaining rights for university employees.

Martin O'Malley
His city got a good chunk of state aid, but the mayor could have used his honeymoon to better advantage.

Wrapping up its annual 90-day session last night, the General Assembly passed two broad child health measures - one requiring infants and toddlers to be tested for lead poisoning and another providing state-funded insurance for an additional 19,000 children.

Lawmakers also approved a plan designed to give public school teachers a 10 percent raise, passed a bill to cut Maryland's inheritance tax and agreed to create a state subsidy for airlines offering commuter service between and Cumberland, Hagerstown and St. Mary's County.

One of last night's casualties was legislation aimed at clamping down on police use of race in making traffic stops. The proposal, which would have required police departments to keep statistics about their stops, got caught in a bitter battle among black lawmakers.

"It's a real tragedy for the black community that we lost such a promising bill that would have set a national standard," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the bill's chief sponsor.

Yesterday's action capped a session highlighted by the passage of a landmark gun-safety measure pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, which will require built-in locks on all handguns sold in the state beginning in 2003.

Before yesterday's final flurry, legislators had wrapped up work on the state's $19.5 billion operating budget for next year - a spending plan built lavishly on a $1 billion surplus.

Thanks to the surplus, lawmakers allocated money for an unprecedented building boom, a 4 percent raise for state employees and an 11 percent increase in funding for Maryland's higher education system.

The budget breaks new ground by including $6 million for textbooks for private schools - a provision approved over the protests of public school advocates and civil libertarians who objected to sending state money to religious schools.

Despite the state's enormous surplus, lawmakers opted not to approve any major tax breaks, concluding that the 10 percent income tax cut passed in 1997 and being phased in through 2002 would suffice.

The Assembly did pass one significant tax bill last night - to eliminate the state's levy on inheritances for some heirs.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. favored abolishing the tax, at an eventual cost to the state of about $50 million annually. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wanted a less costly alternative that would have eliminated the tax only for certain heirs - children, grandchildren, parents and spouses.

The final version will abolish the tax paid by those heirs, as well as siblings, but leave it in place for "collateral" heirs such as nieces and nephews.

Glendening supported a cut in the tax and helped broker the final deal during late negotiations with legislative leaders.

The tax bill, like all legislation, must be signed by the governor before it can become law.

Health measures

Responding to reports of widespread lead poisoning in some Baltimore neighborhoods, the Assembly passed major legislation requiring children in high-risk areas of the state to be tested when 12 and 24 months old.

Children often are poisoned by dust from flaking and peeling lead paint. The paint was widely used before it was banned in Baltimore in 1951, and nationwide in 1978.

Although federal health guidelines recommend lead screening, only a fraction of children at risk are now being tested. In Baltimore, about one-third of children under age 6 were tested in 1998, according to state records.

State officials estimate that the legislation will cause an added 3,400 children to be tested in Baltimore next year - a 50 percent increase. The tests are seen as vitally important because early detection of lead poisoning can limit the harm to children.

"It means there will be testing of kids by their first and second birthdays in the bulk of the state," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who played a key role in passing the bill. "This is a preventable disease. The sooner you test, the more likely you are to intervene medically before the damage is irreversible."

  Highlights Here are highlights of the 2000 Maryland General Assembly session, which ended at midnight. Bills approved by the legislature need the governor's signature to become law.

Guns: Gov. Parris N. Glendening gave up his proposal to require futuristic "smart guns," but still won approval of the nation's toughest gun-safety law. It will require all handguns sold in Maryland to have built-in locks by 2003. Handgun purchasers will have to take safety lessons, and manufacturers will have to submit "ballistic fingerprints" for new guns to help police solve crimes.

Budget/Taxes: Next year's $19.5 billion budget includes record spending for public school construction and new university buildings. It gives state workers a 4 percent raise and significantly increases funding for juvenile justice programs. It also includes a subsidy for textbooks at private schools. The budget comes with no major tax relief, as legislators abandoned plans to speed up an income tax cut scheduled for 2001. A proposal to reduce Maryland's inheritance tax was approved last night.

Education: The governor's plan to encourage 10 percent teacher pay raises passed last night. School systems that approve a 4 percent raise will get a 1 percent state match in each of the next two years. Legislators approved Glendening's plan to give $5,000-a-year scholarships to college students who plan to teach.

Environment: The Assembly rejected the governor's proposal to require advanced septic systems to reduce water pollution, but approved his "smart codes" bills to promote development projects in older communities. A proposed one-year moratorium on dumping spoil dredged from Baltimore's shipping channel died in committee. A bill designed to make it easier to redevelop "brownfields" was approved.

Children: Infants and toddlers in Baltimore and other areas with older housing will have to be tested for lead poisoning under legislation approved yesterday. Lawmakers rejected a proposed oversight commission to monitor the juvenile justice system, but approved a measure requiring libraries to develop plans to keep children away from Internet pornography.

Health: The governor and legislators joined in pushing a nursing home reform package that will increase inspections and send new aid to hire staff and increase pay. A proposal to provide state-funded health insurance for 19,000 children was approved last night. The Assembly approved a measure that will require many college students to be vaccinated against meningitis.

Labor: The governor rewarded unions that supported him in 1998 by successfully pushing legislation to boost wages on school construction projects. A bill to give collective bargaining rights to state university workers died without a hearing.

Business/consumer: A bill banning most cigarette vending machines unless they accept tokens, not coins, was sent to Glendening for his promised signature. Businesses won the right to charge higher late fees, up to $5 a month or 10 percent of the overdue amount. Pioneering legislation designed to set the legal rules for software licensing was approved.

Miscellaneous: A proposal to prohibit marriage among first cousins died in a Senate committee... Legislators approved a bill requiring schools to be closed on Presidents Day, but nixed a proposal to make "Juneteenth" a state holiday celebrating the end of slavery... A bill aimed at helping Orthodox Jewish women get civil divorces died in a House committee... Students from Hannah More school failed to get a bill requiring helmets for roller bladers under 16.

The Assembly also approved legislation offering state-funded health coverage to an additional 19,000 children from working families without insurance.

In a House-Senate compromise, eligibility for the program will be expanded to include households with incomes for a family of four of up to $50,000. Despite urging from advocates to move quickly, legislators opted to delay implementation until July 2001.

The measure also provides coverage for about 600 pregnant women not currently eligible for state-funded care. Some families will have to pay monthly premiums of $37 or $46 to help defray costs.

"There's no child in the state of Maryland now who shouldn't have access to health care," said Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House committee that handled the legislation.

The expansion will eventually cost more than $31 million a year, with the federal government picking up more than half the cost.

A measure aimed at racial profiling by police was defeated amid wrangling among black legislators.

The original bill, sponsored by Delegate Rawlings of Baltimore, was designed to measure how often race is a factor in police stops. It was a priority of African-American lawmakers.

But black senators, including Clarence M. Mitchell IV and Nathaniel J. McFadden, led a successful effort to kill Rawlings' bill last week as payback for his actions this year as House Appropriations Committee chairman.

Black legislators scrambled yesterday to pass a substitute bill, but fell short when Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, declined to take up the bill in the session's waning hours.

"They shouldn't play games," said Baker, a reference to the senators whose maneuvering ultimately doomed the legislation.

Speaker Taylor had better luck with his proposal to provide state assistance to airlines offering flights from BWI to regional airports in his home area of Cumberland and elsewhere around the state. Supporters hope the measure will lead to increased economic development.

Also yesterday, the legislature extended Maryland's minority business set-aside program for two years, but rejected efforts to expand the amount of work earmarked for minority-owned firms beyond the current 14 percent.

Glendening successes

In his sixth session as governor, Glendening claimed victory on several fronts, none more memorable than the gun-safety measure.

When the General Assembly convened in January, prospects were dim for his "smart guns" proposal. It would eventually have allowed the sale in Maryland only of handguns that use fingerprints or other high-tech means to prevent unauthorized people from firing them.

With the bill facing defeat, Glendening jettisoned the smart gun requirement. The final measure will make Maryland the first state to require built-in locks on new handguns. Until that provision takes effect in 2003, the measure will require handguns to come with external trigger locks.

President Clinton is scheduled to be at the State House today when Glendening signs the hard-won legislation into law.

"What we've done is to establish a new minimum standard for gun safety all across the country," Glendening said last night.

The governor also won approval of his teacher pay raise proposal - requiring the state to add 1 percent to salaries for teachers in any public school system that increases pay by 4 percent.

The two-year program marks the first time in memory that the state has contributed to teacher raises. It is designed to give teachers a 10 percent pay raise by the fall of 2001.

Despite concerns from Glendening, legislators amended the measure to require the state to spend $19 million in 2002 on an intervention plan to help struggling students. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had pressed for the funding, while the governor urged legislators to resist the mandate.

Glendening generally prevailed on setting the agenda for the state's use of its $4 billion share of the national tobacco settlement over the next 25 years - focusing on education initiatives and anti-smoking and anti-cancer efforts.

The governor's one major defeat came on a proposal to require more expensive septic tanks in environmentally sensitive areas to curb water pollution. Homebuilders, real estate agents and many legislators objected to a bill that would have added as much as $7,000 to the cost of a new home.

Other action

In other action on the session's final day, the Assembly:

Approved a bill to allow a state agency to float bonds to pay for improvements at Maryland horse tracks. The debt is to be paid by a combination of sources, including track owners and patrons. The measure breaks tradition by allowing twilight thoroughbred racing to help attract new gamblers. It also includes $10 million to increase purses, the fourth year of such assistance.

Rejected a bill to require stiffer penalties - including jail time - for drivers who cause a death through "aggressive driving." While slightly differing versions passed the House and Senate, lawmakers could not resolve the discrepancies.

Approved a new licensing scheme for docking pilots, who guide cargo vessels into berths in the Baltimore port. But legislators turned back an effort to give the state's bay pilots, who guide ships most of the way up the Chesapeake Bay, control of the docking pilots' work as well.

Passed a measure making the state Injured Workers Insurance Fund, which sells workers compensation coverage to private companies, subject for the first time to financial reviews by the state insurance commissioner.

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, Gady A. Epstein, M. Dion Thompson, Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

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