Baker bill passes-- and his committee frees House bills

April 07, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- It's the sort of power play that occurs sometimes near the end of the General Assembly session, but few could recall so blatant an example of legislative "hostage-taking" as occurred over Senate Bill 812.

In an extraordinary show of political muscle, the chairman of a Senate committee managed to change the mind of the House of Delegates last week on his bill taking away some money for legal services for the poor, according to legislators and lobbyists familiar with the issue.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, refused to let his committee vote on several dozen House bills last week until SB 812 safely cleared the House, according to interviews with more than 20 legislators and lobbyists.

Both Senator Baker and Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, who chairs the House committee that passed Mr. Baker's bill, denied that any such quid pro quo existed. But even supporters of Mr. Baker's bill admitted that he had set up an enormous logjam of House bills in his Senate committee to leverage favorable House action on the bill.

The bill would take $750,000 a year from the Maryland Legal Services Corp., a private non-profit company that funds legal programs for the poor, and send it to the state Public Defender's Office. The money, raised primarily from the Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts program (IOLTA), would allow the Public Defender's Office to defend parents and guardians accused of child abuse as part of the Child in Need of Assistance program (CINA).

Mr. Baker has spoken strongly against the Legal Services Corp., and against the IOLTA program, which sends to legal services the interest that accrues when lawyers hold client trust accounts fTC for any length of time. Legal ethics prohibit lawyers from keeping that money, and before the IOLTA program was made mandatory in 1989, most law firms allowed banks to keep the interest.

On Monday a similar legal services bill, sponsored by Mr. Arnick, was defeated in the House. The only difference between the Arnick and Baker bills was that the Senate version would have continued the diversion for each of the next three years, while the House amended it to one year only.

Friday, after Mr. Baker and Mr. Arnick made clear to enough delegates that their bills in the Senate were in danger, the House approved its version of the bill.

Sixteen delegates switched votes to let it pass. Of the 16, all but two were listed as sponsors of bills awaiting action in Senator Baker's committee. Yesterday morning, the Judicial Proceedings Committee reported nearly 50 bills favorably to the Senate floor, although some were sponsored by delegates who voted against both versions of the legal services bill.

The Senate agreed yesterday to the House change, the last step needed for the bill to be sent to the governor's office. An official of Legal Services Corp. said it had not decided whether to petition Gov. William Donald Schaefer for a veto.

The avalanche of bills reported out by Senator Baker's committee included measures ranging from grandparents' visitation rights and penalties for hit-and-run drivers to raising the speed limit to 65 miles per hour on some roads and creating a Bicycle Advisory Committee.

It was an extraordinary number of bills to come out in a single day. Except for the Finance Committee, which reported out 11 bills yesterday morning, no other committee reported more than four.

Some delegates said the fact that the diversion would take place for only one year changed their minds about the bill; some said they simply had reconsidered the issue.

Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore, was more direct. Noting that he switched his vote partly because of the change to a one-year diversion and partly because of the fact that Maryland Legal Services Corp. officers seemed to agree to the compromise, he said, "The other reason is that it's Walter Baker's bill, and he wanted to see it pass. . . . He's chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and my bill was in his committee, a bill that I've been working on for two years."

Other lobbyists and legislators said privately that Mr. Baker had told them in no uncertain terms that he had about 80 House bills that he was holding hostage, but they declined to speak publicly for fear of jeopardizing the remaining House bills in Mr. Baker's committee.

Only Mr. Anderson was bold enough to speak on the record, even though his bill -- concerning the introduction of DNA genetic profile evidence in court -- has yet to clear the Senate committee.

"He and I discussed his bill, and we discussed my bill," Mr. Anderson said. "It was basically a compromise."

Mr. Baker said he never made any connection between his bill and the House bills in his committee. "I've got maybe a dozen or so House bills. I'm not holding them," Mr. Baker insisted Thursday evening after the House committee reported his bill favorably.

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