The Final Day -- and Night

April 08, 1991

After thhree months of arguing over a half-billion-dollar budget deficit, trading brickbats with the governor and positioning themselves to look good before constituents, Maryland's 188 state legislators wrap up an uninspired General Assembly session today with the fate of most major measures no longer in doubt. It could be the least explosive final day -- and night -- in years, though a few important bills remain in limbo.

Two imperiled measures deserve special attention. One would pave the way for low-cost, basic health insurance for the hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who have no such protection. Labor, business and a gubernatorial commission all support this plan, which could ultimately lower medical costs by stressing preventive health care.

The other bill seeks to impose tough auto-pollution standards on new cars. This would mean an extra $50 to $150 in air-emissions equipment on cars but it would prevent a crisis situation a few years down the road when the state may have to discourage economic development because of excessive air pollution.

Most of the other work pending is routine. Delegates are expected to give final approval to a compromise on limiting campaign donations from political action committees. This bill, plus a companion measure restricting the influence of lobbyists in campaign fund-raising, mark a big achievement after five years of futile campaign-reform efforts.

A Schaefer plan to overhaul the state scholarship program also seems destined for passage. This would simplify the scholarship system and base aid to college students more on need and less on geographic location. The result would be added money for minority and disadvantaged students and less for students at higher-priced private colleges.

Another education initiative, making kindergarten attendance mandatory for 5-year-olds, is close to passage, too. It would prove most beneficial in poor areas, such as Baltimore City and the Eastern Shore where kindergarten attendance is lowest. Forcing these kids to attend kindergarten could make a big difference in their grades later on.

Senators, meanwhile, have to take a final vote on a bill strengthening Maryland's open-meetings law. The current statute is one of the weakest in the nation, letting local boards and gubernatorial panels to abuse the law almost at will.

The Senate also has a chance to bury a bill permitting a 65 mph speed limit on 160 miles of interstate roads. Roads just outside metropolitan areas could turn into high-speed raceways, thus increasing the chances of fatal accidents.

And finally, legislators have yet to enact two bills to help ailing Baltimore City. One would turn over the City Jail to the state. This would mean far better management and less expense for Baltimore. The other bill would give the city $9.9 million in extra aid. Both are stopgap measures. Still, passage is essential if the city is to avoid major reductions in public services.

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