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Assembly has much left much to do


With just one week to go, state legislators have yet to decide whether Maryland should reform welfare, toughen ethics laws, cut business taxes or extend affirmative action.

Like students cramming for an exam, they have left some important work for last.

They are up against an April 10 deadline, when their 90-day session must end.

Typically, the final days are a blur of activity. Issues debated for weeks are inevitably settled by a handful of House and Senate members in hastily called meetings in hallways.

No bill is really safe until its final passage.

Any measure can become the victim of a legislative squabble or the simple crush of business, perishing on the final day for lack of action.

"The last week is a whirlwind of activity, and much of what happens, happens behind closed doors. The hearings are virtually finished, but a lot of wonderful and terrible things are happening," said lobbyist Paul A. Tiburzi, whose clients include General Motors and MCI.

"My job is to make sure the wonderful things happen to my clients," he said.

Some State House veterans said the final week of this session will not be quite as hectic as others they have seen.

They expect the schedule to be more manageable because several volatile issues have been settled.

Legislators put bills to legalize casino gambling and cut income taxes on hold until next year.

They already have enacted legislation exempting bars, some restaurants and hotels from the workplace smoking ban.

ZTC And they have removed some controversial tests that were added to the vehicle emissions inspection program.

But they have yet to settle the question of lobbying reform -- an issue that directly affects the way legislators live during the session.

All eyes will be on the Senate this week, where a committee is considering House bills affecting the free meals and gifts lobbyists lavish on lawmakers.

One measure would require lobbyists to reveal the names of legislators they wine and dine, as well as the cost of the meals. The proposal would close a loophole in current law that has allowed the vast majority of the legislators in those situations to remain anonymous.

A subcommittee of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs has proposed going even further by banning free meals.

Another bill would prohibit legislators from accepting non-food gifts worth more than $15 from lobbyists.

A third would ban the free sports and concert tickets that legislators receive from some lobbyists. Bruce C. Bereano, the top lobbyist in Annapolis last year, became well known for handing out tickets to professional sports events.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, the Baltimore County Democrat who heads the subcommittee, said he believes the lobbying package will be on the Senate floor for a vote by the middle of the week.

However, passage of the bills is by no means assured. The issue can be a touchy one for some legislators, who resent the implication that they could be influenced by a gift or a dinner.

Meanwhile, House and Senate negotiators will try to hash out their differences on welfare reform.

So far, both chambers have agreed to support a pilot program for 3,000 households in Baltimore, and Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Under the program, recipients would have to perform community service and enter a job training program unless they found work within three months.

The major sticking point is the so-called family cap.

The House bill contains the provision, which would deny increased payments to families that have more children while on welfare. Still, those parents would receive vouchers to help pay for some of the infant's needs, such as diapers and formula.

The Senate bill would continue the current practice of providing more benefits for additional children.

The cap's supporters say it would encourage parental responsibility, but critics say it would punish children for their parents' irresponsible behavior.

The Senate bill also contains a provision that would require the state Motor Vehicle Administration to suspend the driver's licenses of parents who fall three months behind in child support payments.

Based on experiences in other states, proponents hope the measure will pressure delinquent fathers to pay up and thus help women and children get off welfare.

Also on the agenda is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to increase the amount of state business ear marked for firms owned by women and minorities.

Bucking a national tide against affirmative action, the governor proposed increasing the figure from the current 10 percent to 18 percent. The Senate passed the governor's bill, while the House refused to go higher than 12 percent.

But on Friday, senators tentatively agreed to a 14 percent compromise.

The development came a day after a private meeting between House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Sen. Clarence W. Blount, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"I've done the best I can, and I think that's what the House can buy," said Mr. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat.

House leaders were optimistic. "The probability is that the House will accept the Senate amendments, even with the higher [figure,]" predicted House Commerce and Government Matters Committee Chairman Gerald J. Curran.

Mr. Curran, a Baltimore Democrat, noted that a quarter of Maryland's population is African-American.

"This would be a happier place to be if a larger number of African-Americans were in the mainstream of the state's economy. This is one way of getting them there," he said.

Bonnie A. Kirkland, the governor's chief lobbyist, called the compromise "terrific." Her staff had previously said that any figure short of 18 percent would subject the state's minority business program to a legal challenge, but Friday she said she believed the lower figure is "legally justifiable."

Lawmakers also will labor on a mixed bag of tax breaks, mostly for businesses.

Two proposed by Mr. Glendening would provide an incentive for businesses to operate low-polluting vehicles that use alternative fuels and repeal a tax on some equipment owned by research and development companies.

The governor also supports repeal of the 5 percent sales tax on snack foods, but the measure has become bogged down in a Senate committee.

Frito-Lay Inc. has said it could expand its Harford County plant and warehouse if the tax is abolished.

One of the more controversial tax bills would require banks to pay $3 million less in taxes each year. The measure has already passed the House, and a similar version is expected to be approved by the Senate. The governor opposes it.

Supporters are hoping it will stop the loss of banking jobs in Maryland. Opponents complain the proposal amounts to a taxpayer-subsidized bribe to keep banks in Maryland.

"It's a stick-up," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat. "The banks are saying, 'Give us a break or we're leaving.' "

Banks now pay a 7 percent franchise tax on their net profits,

including the interest they receive on government bond and notes.

Among other changes under the Senate bill, they would instead pay the 7 percent corporate income tax, which excludes interest on government securities.

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