Lawmakers going to wire on key issues; Money for teachers, racetracks among unresolved measures; Md. budget deadline tonight; Most of initiatives proposed by governor pending in final week


The General Assembly enters the final week of the 2000 legislative session with a host of issues still to be resolved, including proposals to boost teacher salaries by 10 percent, add thousands of children to state health insurance rolls and raise millions of dollars to renovate Maryland's horse tracks.

Also undecided are measures that address the problem of lead-poisoned children, scale back or eliminate the state's inheritance tax and create a new commission to oversee the troubled Department of Juvenile Justice.

Nevertheless, legislative leaders do not foresee any major hitches before the annual 90-day session ends next Monday at midnight.

"I don't think it's going to be one of those frantic closings," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat.

Much of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislative package is pending, though the House of Delegates gave final approval Friday to one of his top priorities -- a union-backed measure requiring that the prevailing wage be paid on school construction projects.

A Glendening proposal to use state funds to help increase teacher salaries by 10 percent over two years met with resistance initially but has gained momentum. It has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

The governor's proposal to require built-in locks on handguns sold in Maryland as of 2003 cleared the House Judiciary Committee Friday night after a bitter fight in the Senate. The measure is expected to win final approval early this week.

But one of his top environmental initiatives -- to require more efficient septic systems in certain areas to reduce Chesapeake Bay pollution -- is in danger of being defeated.

"There have been a lot of concerns expressed, but the governor is continuing to work with legislators on it," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

Overall, Morrill said, Glendening's legislative package has done well.

"The legislature has been very good to the governor's initiatives," Morrill said. "At the moment, it looks like this year will go down as one of his very best."

Among the issues headed for conference committee is a proposal to expand the state Children's Health Program, which now provides health coverage for 63,000 children and pregnant women from working families without private insurance.

Glendening and Taylor have proposed including families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level -- or roughly $50,000 for a family of four -- beginning next year. The proposal, which would require some families to pay a premium to help cover costs, would add an estimated 19,600 children to the program.

The Senate has proposed a smaller expansion that would add roughly 13,500 children starting this year.

Surprisingly smooth session

What was billed as a potentially contentious session -- with factions battling for their share of the state's $1 billion surplus -- has been surprisingly smooth.

"Sometimes a surplus causes more problems than recessionary times," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I think the session's going to end up much more amicably than I anticipated."

After working out differences over the weekend, leaders are hoping to pass the $19 billion state budget tonight to meet the constitutional deadline of approving the budget by the 83rd day of the session.

The budget being sent to the floor does relatively minor tinkering to the governor's proposal and will include major new spending for Maryland colleges and for the state's juvenile justice system and money to build or renovate public schools.

Budget irks GOP lawmakers

While there has been little disagreement over the general outline of the plan, Republican lawmakers are clearly unhappy about a budget that ratchets up spending and offers no new income tax relief.

"We have blown the opportunity to reserve funds for the future and to give tax relief to Marylanders," said Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden of Howard County. "We couldn't find the money to do it this year, but we've found a way to increase the budget by $1 billion."

Some heavily lobbied bills have hit snags.

Legislation that would authorize a state agency to sell millions of dollars in bonds to finance improvements at Maryland's privately owned horse racing tracks has been slowed by industry infighting and last-minute concerns by the Glendening administration.

The administration wants a larger role for the Maryland Stadium Authority in overseeing construction at the tracks and to require the owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park to spend more of their money for improvements. While the bill passed the Senate on Friday, the House continues to wrestle with it.

Slow going on bay pilots bill

Other legislation that has drawn considerable attention would ultimately give Maryland's bay pilots -- who make their living guiding oceangoing vessels through the Chesapeake Bay -- monopoly control of piloting and docking work in Maryland.

The Senate has passed a version of the legislation favored by the pilots, but the bill has been slowed in the House after objections by Port Administration officials, who fear the proposal would raise costs and hurt port business.

Problems also could await the "late fee" legislation, which would reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that prevents businesses from charging more than 0.5 percent a month on the outstanding balance of an unpaid bill.

The bill passed by the Senate would allow businesses to charge $10 a month or 10 percent of the outstanding balance, whichever is more. The House version is a bit more consumer friendly and would allow charges of $5 a month or 10 percent.

But on Friday, concerns about a provision authorizing late fees retroactively prompted House leaders to postpone a vote on the bill until tomorrow.

"When that and 'guns' are done and the budget's wrapped up, I'd be surprised if we have anything to do Saturday or Monday," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

'Anything can happen'

While there is no indication of trouble ahead, others cautioned about the unpredictability of the final days.

"Anything can happen," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, another Anne Arundel Democrat. "There's the fatigue factor, the irritation factor.

"That's what makes the last week of the session the last week of the session."

Issues before the legislature

Here is the status of some of the major issues before the General Assembly:

Guns: Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to require built-in locks on all handguns sold in Maryland as of 2003 has passed the Senate and was approved Friday by the House Judiciary Committee. It goes to the House floor, where it is expected to pass.

Tobacco: House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on how to spend the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, an estimated $4.2 billion over 25 years. Adhering largely to priorities set by Glendening, the money will be directed mainly to education and to cancer prevention, treatment and research.

Prevailing wage: Glendening's proposal to require that the prevailing wage be paid to workers on school construction projects has won final approval and awaits the governor's signature.

Collective bargaining: A proposal to give collective-bargaining rights to 10,000 state university employees appears certain to fail. The governor tried to win passage of a similar measure last session but did not push the matter this year.

Septic systems: Glendening's proposal to require that new septic systems in some areas be equipped with nitrogen-reduction technology is in trouble. The measure would apply to property owners installing a septic system at a new home or replacing a failing one.

Lead paint: A bill to require blood testing for infants and toddlers in Baltimore and other high-risk areas awaits final approval in the Senate. Another measure would require landlords to give new tenants documentation that a unit has been inspected for lead. That bill is pending in a Senate committee.

Juvenile justice: A proposal to create an independent oversight commission to monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice has cleared the House and is pending in a Senate committee.

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