Ethics takes center stage ASSEMBLY'S FINAL NIGHT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Maryland General Assembly moved last night to cleanse its reputation for coziness with lobbyists, passing a series of bills aimed at distancing lawmakers from those who are paid to influence them.

In the last hour before its midnight adjournment, the assembly also approved a pilot welfare reform program, a measure to turn some state child support collection efforts over to a private company, and legislation to allow HMO patients to see doctors outside their networks if they are willing to pay for the privilege.

Also approved were measures to speed appeals in death penalty cases and to have the state begin licensing outpatient surgical centers.

The ethics bills -- prompted in part by last fall's felony conviction of the top lobbyist in Annapolis -- would force lobbyists to reveal the names of elected officials they treat to meals, drinks or tickets to sporting or cultural events worth $15 or more.

Elected officials would be prohibited from accepting other types of gifts valued at $15 or more.

"I believe this will have a deterrent effect and will allow the public to judge if the gifts that legislators get are excessive," said Deborah Povich, lobbyist for the self-styled citizens lobby, Common Cause Maryland.

But even as legislators were voting on the ethics bills, tables in the lounges behind the House and Senate chambers were arrayed with trays of lox and bagels donated by the lobbying firm of Dukes, Evans, Rozner, Brown and Stierhoff.

Elsewhere in the State House were flowers and sandwiches donated by other lobbyists to help legislative staffers get through the session's marathon final day.

The assembly gave final approval to legislation that imposes new work requirements on some welfare recipients after House and Senate conferees agreed to require the state to hire a private company to handle child support collections in Queen Anne's County and Baltimore.

Supporters believe a private company would do a better job than the state, which in turn should reduce the number of women who turn to the state for financial assistance.

To appease worried employee unions, however, city lawmakers insisted on provisions that would safeguard the jobs, salaries and benefits of the 350 employees affected.

Pilot program

The bill would create a pilot welfare reform program affecting about 3,000 recipients in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. The recipients would have to perform community service and enter job training after three months on welfare.

Lawmakers rejected a proposed "family cap" that would have denied extra benefits to recipients who have additional children after going on welfare. Instead, they directed welfare officials to use vouchers or some other means to limit the way families may spend the extra $80 they receive for an additional child. The money would have to be spent on diapers or other infant needs.

The so-called "patient access" legislation would guarantee patients in health maintenance organizations the right to see any doctors they want, although they would have to pay extra.

HMOs fought the bill, warning that it would undermine their ability to hold down medical costs and make insurance premiums affordable.

But the state medical society made the bill its top legislative priority. HMOs have upset many patients by restricting their choices of doctors and access to specialists -- practices that have eroded the incomes of some doctors.

Another regulatory bill would give the state more control over the burgeoning outpatient surgery business. Maryland has 111 independent surgery centers, which compete against hospitals.

The legislation -- passed with less than five minutes remaining in the 90-day session -- would require the centers to be licensed, a means of ensuring quality of care. It also would give the Health Resources Planning Commission more ability to regulate their growth.

As with other legislation, the bills will become law only if signed by the governor.

Backers of the legislation to speed death penalty appeals said it could trim as much as two years off the average 11 years it takes for such appeals to run their course.

Efforts to reform the legislative scholarship program failed because delegates and senators could not agree on how to change it.

The House wanted to abolish the unique program, which allows legislators to hand out $8.5 million in college aid to constituents. The Senate, however, only wanted to make some changes. Both sides blamed each other for the legislation's demise.

Lawmakers occupied themselves by passing a $390 million capital construction budget, authorizing Ocean City to levy a local sales tax on restaurants to pay for renovation of its convention center, and approving a series of small tax breaks that will save targeted businesses about $45 million annually by the year 2000.

The tax relief would go to vending machine operators, car leasing and rental agencies, research and development companies and businesses that maintain fleets powered with natural gas and other alternative fuels.

Bankers won approval of a change in a 27-year-old tax law that has treated banks differently from other corporations. The legislation would save banks up to $3 million annually and, supporters said, keep bank jobs in Maryland.

No early pensions

The legislature also approved a bill to take away early pensions from three of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top aides. They qualified for the pensions by being "involuntarily separated" as Prince George's County employees when Mr. Glendening, then the county executive, asked for their resignations.

The blitz of action on the final day contrasted sharply with the pace of a session that began slowly and barely picked up speed after that. With 44 percent of the delegates and senators new, assembly leaders approached the 90-day session as largely a learning experience.

Lawmakers postponed until next year an array of hot-button issues, including gun control, the legalization of casino gambling, collective bargaining for state employees, and the spending cuts necessary for income tax relief.

"It's dress rehearsal. Pre-Broadway," joked Mr. Taylor. "We're going to be dealing with a plateful next year."

Nevertheless, the 1995 General Assembly managed to adopt a series of measures friendly to business. Responding to complaints that the high cost of relocating employees in Maryland is one reason companies move elsewhere, lawmakers voted to reduce closing costs for first-time homebuyers.

'Sunny Day Fund'

The governor won permission to increase from $4 million to $20 million the amount set aside in a discretionary "Sunny Day Fund" to attract businesses to Maryland. He also persuaded the legislature to increase the amount of state business earmarked for minority-owned firms from the current 10 percent to 14 percent.

"I believe we have probably the most successful pro-business, pro-job session in the last two decades," Mr. Glendening said.

Earlier this session, lawmakers agreed to let motorists in Maryland drive faster by increasing the maximum speed limit to 65 mph on about 270 miles of rural highways. They also postponed until June 1996 a tougher form of vehicle emissions testing that was to have started this year.

And they made it easier for police to nab motorists who drink and drive by making a blood-alcohol concentration of .10 percent or higher absolute proof of intoxication.

Responding to a mid-session court decision, the legislature allowed a ban on smoking in virtually every workplace in Maryland to go into effect, but only after voting to exempt bars and some restaurants.

The $14.4 billion state budget approved for next year is essentially a stand-pat spending plan, but includes a 2 percent pay raise for the state's 75,000 employees. It also eliminates a program that has paid $157 a month to 21,000 poor, disabled adults. In place of that $35 million program, the governor substituted $10 million in housing vouchers.

Worst defeat

The most stinging defeat for the new governor came in the House of Delegates, which rejected his attempt to lift restrictions on the use of Medicaid funds for abortions for poor women. Mr. Glendening has vowed to try again next year.

Mr. Glendening got off to a good start.

After narrowly winning the election and then surviving a legal challenge from Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Mr. Glendening used his budget, State of the State and inaugural addresses to set a modest, pro-business agenda that was well received by the legislature.

It was a refreshing change for lawmakers accustomed to eight confrontational years with William Donald Schaefer. But the honeymoon did not last long.

Just 10 days after he was sworn in, the first in a series of stories broke regarding a lucrative pension and benefit plan that Mr. Glendening and several of his top aides had engineered for themselves before leaving office in Prince George's County. The governor had been county executive there for 12 years.

Even though Mr. Glendening and his aides promised to defer their pension payments, questions surrounding the program damaged the governor's credibility.

On the heels of that scandal came the revelation that the governor's legal defense fund had accepted $95,000 in contributions from a Baltimore businessman to help pay bills left over from Mrs. Sauerbrey's election challenge.

A statewide poll in March showed that only 18 percent of Maryland voters thought the governor was doing an "excellent" or "good" job.

One joke around the State House was that the governor's biggest legislative initiative was to restore to the governor's mansion its pre-Schaefer name, "Government House."

But Mr. Glendening boasted about his performance.

"It looks like we're getting everything we wanted, just about," he said late last week. "I feel this has really turned out to be a great session."

Lawmakers in both houses, however, complained about the governor's apparent willingness to bend on almost any issue if that's what it took to be able to declare victory.

Nonconfrontational

Partly that was due to his nonconfrontational approach. "I don't go in for these death struggles," he said in a presession interview.

His budget was a case in point. Unlike Governor Schaefer, who relentlessly pushed spending as far as the legislature would permit, Mr. Glendening agreed from the outset to keep the increase in spending in his budget below the assembly's self-imposed limit of 4.5 percent.

That allowed lawmakers to set aside a $250 million surplus to be tapped only if Congress cuts deeply into federal aid to Maryland or if a financial crisis should arise. Otherwise, it is to go toward a personal income tax cut next year.

"I didn't see that the governor did anything," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman. "He was absent. But he claimed credit for a whole lot of things."

The Howard County Republican said the governor's two major accomplishments were preventing an income tax cut this year ** and increasing the state's affirmative action goals -- both of which, Mr. Kittlemann said, "are negatives."

The governor, however, said his budget and legislative package were aimed at improving schools and police protection and creating jobs without raising taxes. He said he was convinced he had achieved those objectives.

After the right turn the nation took in November, Democrats and Republicans alike spent most of the session trying to demonstrate their willingness to embrace conservative proposals.

One step ahead

Especially in the 141-member House, where the GOP caucus grew to 41 members, Democratic leaders tried to stay one step ahead, pushing for tax cuts, welfare reform and a reduction in closing costs before the Republicans could do so.

Mr. Taylor tried to persuade the governor and Senate president to seek an income tax cut this year, but had to settle for an agreement to do it next year.

Mr. Glendening had wanted to wait until the third or fourth year of the term.

"People gloss over it, but I still think the victory there is that we moved the issue from the fourth year to the second year," Mr. Taylor said. "We've almost guaranteed ourselves a meaningful, substantial income tax cut next January."

But Mr. Taylor is already warning that tax cuts will not be possible without painful cuts in spending, and he says the annual increase in state aid to Baltimore and the 23 counties is likely to be tops on next year's hit list.

"Our relationship with local governments isn't going to be the same," Mr. Taylor said.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE ASSEMBLY

Here are highlights of the 1995 Maryland General Assembly, which ended at midnight. Bills approved by the legislature need the governor's signature to become law.

MOTORISTS

For the first time in two decades, motorists will be allowed to drive 65 mph on some Maryland highways. The legislature approved the governor's proposal to permit the higher speed limit on about 270 miles of rural highways starting in July.

Lawmakers also approved bills to crack down on drunken

drivers. One makes failing a Breathalyzer test absolute proof of intoxication. A second doubles the penalty for driving drunk with children in the car.

To appease unhappy car owners, the legislature agreed to delay a controversial new vehicle emissions testing program until June of next year. In the meantime, the old tailpipe tests will be required in six additional counties: Frederick, Washington, Cecil, Queen Anne's, Calvert and Charles.

BALTIMORE

The legislature approved a bill designed to lower city car insurance rates, although industry officials say they are skeptical about whether it will have much effect. The legislation requires major insurance companies to demonstrate that they attempt to sell policies to city drivers.

Lawmakers were tough on the city school system. They adopted a bill that would force the city to create a new program for violent students, and they withheld $5.8 million in state aid until improvement in school management is evident.

A bill to prohibit local governments from imposing residency requirements on municipal employees also was approved. The measure was aimed primarily at Baltimore, where some workers, including firefighters, are required to live in the city.

The assembly defeated Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's top initiative, a measure that would have required the state to pay more of the cost of running circuit courts. But city legislators were able to stave off an attempt to cut transportation aid to Baltimore.

WELFARE

Legislation to create a pilot welfare reform program was pending last night. It would require about 3,000 recipients in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties to perform community service and enter job training after three months on welfare. Parents of children under the age of 3 would be exempt. Also pending was a proposal to require families who have more children while on welfare to use their extra payments on infant needs, such as diapers.

Lawmakers passed a bill designed to encourage businesses to hire welfare recipients. It would give a business an $1,800 tax credit for each recipient it hired.

The legislature approved the governor's plan to end a state program for disabled adults.

CRIME

The legislature was expected to approve the governor's proposal to speed up death penalty appeals. The legislation would reduce the number of post-conviction appeals available to a death row inmate from two to one, among other changes. Supporters say the bill would shave several years off a process that can take 11 years.

Lawmakers also were expected to approve a version of "Megan's Law," a requirement that police be notified when a convicted child sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

To deter joy riders, the assembly agreed to make the taking of a car without the owner's consent a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The crime is currently a

misdemeanor.

TAXES

The governor and legislative leaders decided against cutting personal income taxes this year, but tax breaks were approved for many businesses and first-time home buyers.

Lawmakers approved tax cuts for car leasing companies, research and development firms and businesses which maintain fleets powered with natural gas and other alternative fuels.

Bank were successful in their efforts to change a 27-year-old tax law that has treated them differently from other corporations. The change would save banks up to $3 million annually.

Frito-Lay fought without success to repeal a three-year-old sales tax on salty snack foods. Many legislators complained that the company was attempting to blackmail the state when it said it would not expand its pretzel factory in Harford County without repeal.

To help first-time homebuyers, lawmakers voted to reduce their closing costs by shifting transfer and recordation taxes onto the sellers. The measure also would lower closing costs for all homebuyers by reducing the portion of property taxes that must pre-paid.

Under the measure, a first-time buyer of a $150,000 home in Baltimore County could save $2,720 in closing costs and deferred property tax payments. In Baltimore, where property

taxes are higher, the savings would be $3,581.

EDUCATION

The legislature approved spending $117 million for public school construction, the largest budget in two decades. The money will pay for new schools, additions, renovations and repairs to heating and air conditioning systems.

Lawmakers rejected a bill, sought by the state teachers union, that would have given teachers more influence over rules governing their training and certification.

ETHICS

Spurred in part by publicity surrounding the trial of a top Annapolis lobbyist, the legislature approved some ethics reform bills. One requires lobbyists to disclose which lawmakers they treat to drinks and meals worth $15 or more. Another prohibits lawmakers from accepting nonfood gifts worth $15 or more.

A record number of ex-legislators returned to Annapolis this year to lobby their former colleagues. To cool off such close relationships, the assembly voted to make former lawmakers sit out one legislative session before coming back to lobby.

ELECTIONS

After Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's strong showing in last year's election for governor, lawmakers voted to retain and expand the state's system of publicly financed gubernatorial campaigns. The governor has promised to sign the measure into law, although it could provide more than $1.5 million in campaign funds for an opponent in 1998.

Legislators also decided to set up a task force to review problems that surfaced in the election. Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawsuit drew attention to Baltimore's failure to remove ineligible voters from the rolls and to secure city voting machines.

HEALTH

Lawmakers defeated proposals that would have made those who own or lease vending machines responsible for sales of tobacco to minors. As a result, the state could lose federal aid totaling $24 million.

The legislature did not go along with the governor's plan to lift restrictions on taxpayer-funded abortions for poor women. For the 15th consecutive year, lawmakers voted to allow Medicaid to pay for abortions only if a mother's physical or mental health is seriously threatened, a fetus is deformed or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

Lawmakers were expected to approve legislation giving HMO patients greater freedom to see doctors outside their networks.

ENVIRONMENT

Lawmakers defeated a bill that would have given citizens additional rights to challenge development on environmental grounds. The measure would have allowed more people to oppose state permits for projects ranging from trash incinerators to golf courses.

A bill originally sought by developers to streamline the wetlands permit process also was defeated. The measure died, in part, because supporters decided that Congress probably will relax laws protecting wetlands from development.

Lawmakers agreed to the governor's plan to reorganize the departments of Natural Resources and Environment, putting most regulatory functions in the latter.

OTHER

The legislature approved a bill to require children riding bicycles in Maryland to wear protective helmets. If signed by the governor, the law will take effect Oct. 1.

Despite the urging of news media representatives, lawmakers rejected a proposal to permit cameras inside state courtrooms.

For the fourth consecutive year, a House panel defeated gay rights legislation. It would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations.

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