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Insurance minimum bill delayed at brink of passage

A bill that would raise the minimum level of liability coverage for owners of vehicles in Maryland reached the verge of approval Tuesday before it became enmeshed in a loosely related struggle -- giving opponents hope they could scuttle the measure.

The bill would raise the minimum a vehicle owner must carry from the current $20,000 per person and $40,000 per crash to $30,000 and $60,000 respectively.

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The bill's passage could raise insurance premiums for as many as 200,000 Marylanders who carry the minimum level of coverage. Opponents, led by insurance companies but backed by advocates for the poor, warned that the impact would fall hardest on low-income workers who can barely afford coverage as it is.

But supporters of the bills, including plaintiff's lawyers and clients who had been limited in how much that could collected after crashes in which another person was at fault, pointed out that the minimums had not been raised since the early 1970s.

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The bill came up on the Senate floor Tuesday, but Republican opponents battered it with a flurry of amendments. But each was turned aside comfortably by the Democratic majority.

The Republicans had run out of amendments and the bill was apparently on the verge of final approval when Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Democratic supporter of the measure, sought to  delay a vote by a day so she could offer an amendment of her own. The Senate agreed to the delay despite the opposition of Senate Preident Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, would not comment on the subject of her planned amendment, but senators said it is expected to involve a long-running dispute over payments to the Maryland Auto Insurance Fund. Gladden and some other African-American legislators want to let policy holders with MAIF, the state's insurer of last resort, pay their steep premiums in installments. They are opposed by financing companies that have built a thriving business on loans to MAIF customers to make  their lump-sum payments and by rival insurance companies.

Legislation that would address the issue has been hung up in the Senate Finance Committee, and Gladden's move is an apparent end run around the panel.

Sen. Rob Garagiola, the Senate sponsor of the insurance minimums bill, said he would fight the attempt to lump the two controversies together.

Miller said he sympathizes with the effort to allow installment payments but doesn't believe the matter should be grafted onto the insurance minimums measure.

"It bypasses the process," Miller said.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a vote on a MAIF amendment raised optimism among opponents of the insurance minimums bill, who hope to put together a coalition of GOP lawmakers and African-Americans to approve the amendment and force the issue back to the House.

The surprise amendment followed a lively debate on the bill.

Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, tried to amend the bill to delay the increase for two years, arguing that low-income Marylanders can't afford it at a time of economic recession.

Glassman picked up support from the Democratic side as Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore County urged approval of the amendment. "If we made it 38 years, we can wait till this recession is over," she said. The amendment failed 16-28.

Pipkin also offered a tongue-in-cheek amendment renaming the bill the Trial Lawyer Relief Act of 2010, arguing that it would create a pool of $100 million in extra money available for judgments or settlements.

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Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that it should be called the Reduce the Uncompensated Care Act for its potential to reduce the amount of money hospitals lose caring for injured patients who can't collect enough from insurers to cover their bills.

The amendment failed on an 11-32 vote.

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