Assembly faces jam of issues on last day Baltimore school aid, controls on sprawl, budget await action


As the Maryland General Assembly enters the last day of its 90-day session, a host of major issues await final action -- ranging from approval of the state's $15 billion budget to the Baltimore City schools deal to the governor's anti-sprawl legislation.

The fate of hundreds of bills still must be resolved before the legislature adjourns at midnight tonight, ending a session marked by parochialism and infighting that has left tempers frayed and relationships strained.

"It's going to look like air traffic control at O'Hare Airport," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat from Washington County, about what promises to be a frenzied final day.

"We've got a lot of legislation still out there that may die for lack of time. The hours will seem very short," Poole said.

Among the larger matters still pending are:

Approval of the state's $15 billion operating budget for next year and its $415 million capital spending plan, which contains local pork-barrel projects so dear to legislators.

House and Senate negotiators agreed yesterday to an operating budget that would shave an estimated $51 million from the governor's proposal and leave the state a projected surplus of nearly $30 million. Their recommendations were expected to be rubber-stamped by both chambers today.

The Baltimore City schools management reform bill. The legislation would send the city $254 million in new education aid over five years and give the state a role in running the school system. Under the bill, the state's 23 counties would share $33 million in new school aid next year.

After a bitter floor fight Saturday night, the House finally passed the bill. While the legislation is expected to win final Assembly approval today, the House and Senate first must reconcile differences -- in particular whether to keep the management reforms in place after the five years of additional funding specified in the bill.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth and Rural Legacy anti-sprawl legislation. The Smart Growth bill, which would allow hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to be spent only in certain growth areas, is expected to be easily approved by both houses, following intense negotiations Friday that yielded a compromise bill.

The fate of the Rural Legacy initiative, however, is in doubt. That bill, which would allow the state to buy development rights on land threatened by encroaching development, is still being considered by a conference committee of delegates and senators.

"What I learned in this session is that you should never allow the state budget to be used as a blackmail device to control totally unrelated public policy issues and hold the state budget hostage in balance until the 90th day."

Casper R. Taylor Jr.,House speaker

Glendening's "Thriving by Three" initiative to provide health coverage to uninsured women and children. The House and Senate must reach a compromise on the income range and number of families to insure, but legislative leaders said they expected that to happen.

Hundreds of other less high-profile issues -- such as whether to require drug testing of some welfare applicants, to let cities tax video rentals and to have cameras at intersections to nab red light violators -- also are still in question.

Rooted in standoff

The last-minute backlog stems from a standoff between the Assembly and the governor over the budget, the city schools deal and the anti-sprawl initiative.

Glendening refused to send down a supplemental spending proposal -- necessary for the legislature to conclude its deliberations on the state budget -- until his Smart Growth anti-sprawl legislation was approved.

At the same time, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat, refused to move the city schools bill until Glendening sent down the supplemental spending plan, which contained additional school aid for the counties.

After the Senate and House came to preliminary agreement on Smart Growth Friday, Glendening sent down the supplemental spending plan, and the schools bill finally moved through the House on Saturday.

"This is highly irregular, except in the time of a true budget crisis," said an irritated Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We couldn't finish the budget because we didn't have it."

Legislators in both houses have been highly critical of Glendening's tactic of using the budget as leverage to get his programs passed.

"What I learned in this session is that you should never allow the state budget to be used as a blackmail device to control totally unrelated public policy issues and hold the state budget hostage in balance until the 90th day," Taylor said. "We sometimes lose sight of the fundamental good-government principle of deciding each issue on its own merits."

Glendening defended his action in an interview yesterday, saying that his threat not to send down the supplemental budget proposal "helped focus attention" on issues for which "there didn't seem to be a sense of urgency."

"Obviously, you wouldn't want to use this approach on every issue, every year," Glendening said.

Legislators did manage to resolve some issues before today. The Assembly has already given final approval to bills cutting state income taxes by 10 percent over five years, requiring the computerization of campaign finance records and making it easier to clean up contaminated industrial sites known as "brownfields."

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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