ANNAPOLIS -- The last few weeks of the legislative session are a civics lesson in why your civics lessons were all wrong. What they failed to mention is how utterly stacked are the odds against passing legislation -- any legislation -- and how the slightest snag late in the session usually is enough to kill a bill headed for passage.
In Annapolis those odds may be lengthening for business interests who try to get their legislation past the two major business committees in the House and Senate.
Unless the House Economic Matters Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are able to work out a delicate series of compromises in the last few hours of the session today, the goodwill they started to build in the last year could disappear. And that could serve as an example of the frustrations (or benefits, for those trying to kill bills) of a bicameral legislature.
Last year it appeared that Economic Matters and Finance had started the process of shaking hands and making up after at least a four-year ice age. Neither committee had trusted the other, and to some extent they still don't.
But the Senate panel, led by Prince George's Democrat Thomas P. O'Reilly, had ushered in an era of goodwill by acquiescing on a health reform initiative pushed by Allegany Delegate Casper R. Taylor Jr., chairman of the House committee and a Democrat.
Despite his misgivings, Mr. O'Reilly gave way to the extraordinary coalition Mr. Taylor had forged to pass his "basic benefits bill," a first step toward lowering health insurance costs for small businesses.
That bill was supposed to herald a new era of cooperation and trust between the two panels. And that would have boded well for those business groups and reformers who like to see bills pass (arguably a minority).
This year, Mr. Taylor's next step in health care legislation is called small group market reform. It's an effort to limit the vast price differences for health insurance between different small companies, depending on the health of their employees.
With less than a week left in the legislature (an extended session would be limited to dealing with the budget), Mr. O'Reilly's committee still had communicated no sense of what it would do with the small group market reform bill that Mr. Taylor so badly wanted. Rumors had Mr. O'Reilly ready to unveil a complicated set of amendments that were sure to face rejection in the House panel.
When the impending sine die deadline becomes the main factor in a bill's chances for success, unrelated bills begin to get tied together. In this case, the two committees' chairmen had been working on a fragile compromise over the governor's insurance division reorganization bill, which Delegate Taylor had convinced the governor to sponsor.
Mr. Taylor very much wants the insurance regulator to be independent of its Department of Licensing and Regulation, whose secretary has been criticized at public hearings for diverting some of the resources of the insurance division. The insurance industry in Maryland has agreed to provide some of the funding to operate the division and get it in shape for accreditation in 1994 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Mr. O'Reilly has no intention of letting the division become independent, but the two committees have agreed to a sort of "fire wall" protecting the division from the department's secretary, William A.Fogle Jr.
But the real sticking point, which could poison the bill and the relationship between the two committees, is how powerful the regulator's anti-fraud bureau should be:
Mr. O'Reilly doesn't want it to have civil enforcement power.
Meanwhile, another pair of bills has gotten mixed into the insurance brew: they relate to how physicians who aren't under contract with an HMO, such as anesthesiologists and emergency room physicians, get paid by that HMO. Senate Finance has passed the bills, but House Economic Matters killed them, so the Senate panel may amend those bills onto the small group market reform legislation.
Complicated enough? There's more: A bill from Finance member Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, would require insurers to sell uninsured motorist coverage in the same amount as a driver's primary liability coverage, unless the driver specifically requests a lower uninsuredcoverage.
The House committee didn't want it, but when it realized the bad feelings killing the bill would engender across the street in Finance, Economic Matters took another look at it.
"If we have to pass this bill to maintain whatever shred of harmony remains between us and the Senate Finance Committee, then let's get it over with and pass it," Del. Gerald J. Curran urged his committee on Thursday.
By midnight tonight, businesses should have a better sense of whether that seed of harmony has blossomed or withered.
Business groups were still scratching their heads last week over the loss of the prized punitive damages bill, which the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee killed 8-3 on Thursday.
The "real" vote came earlier, however, when the committee rejected an amendment to weaken the bill, making it a bit easier to prove behavior worthy of punitive damages. That vote was 6-5 against the amendment, which surprised even the chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil.
After hundreds of man-hours and many thousands of lobbying dollars, it's a bitter pill for those lobbyists to feed their clients, including the Rouse Co., Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., Crown Central Petroleum Corp. and others. But lobbyist Paul Tiburzi assures they'll be back next year.