Few business issues survived in General Assembly session

April 08, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- For Maryland's business community, 1992 was the year that was not.

It was not the year for punitive-damages reform, despite the all-fronts campaign business lobbyists waged to limit the threat of jury awards against corporations. Plaintiffs' lawyers and consumer groups were equally driven to defeat the bill, which passed the House but died by a close vote in a Senate committee.

It was not the year for repeal of the prevailing-wage law, despite the fears of construction unions. They were concerned that budget problems would fuel a campaign by non-union contractors to abolish the program, which requires that a minimum wage be paid for most state construction projects.

And it most certainly was not the year for health-care and insurance reform, despite a January health-care summit at which 400 people gathered to seek a way to lower costs and make health insurance available to Maryland's 640,000 uninsured people.

A bill to create one statewide health-insurance claim form survived, as did legislation requiring insurers to cover the cost of child wellness services, such as physical examinations and immunizations. But a fundamental reform of the system could not make it out of a single committee, and even the idea of a task force to study a plan for universal health insurance was too much for the General Assembly this year.

"I am disappointed," said Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., the Allegany County Democrat who led the drive for health-care reform as chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee.

A growing feud between Mr. Taylor and his counterpart in the Senate made it even more unlikely that substantive business issues will fare any better in years to come.

The rancor between Democratic Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Mr. Taylor came to a head Monday night over the governor's bill to reorganize the state insurance division, a personal project of Mr. Taylor.

Along with making the regulator an independent agency, the bill would have imposed a surtax on the state's insurers to help fund their regulator, providing more money to help achieve national accreditation. The bill, which the insurance industry strongly supported in its original form, also would have given the division power to seek civil penalties for fraud committed against insurers.

That last provision turned out to be the toughest to resolve, and the bill died at midnight Monday, taking with it roughly $6 million in higher fees and new taxes the industry had volunteered to pay to the division.

"It just goes to show you: You can't give money away," said Jack Andryszak of USF&G Corp., one of the strongest supporters of the bill.

A 'so-so session'

Another victim of the House-Senate rivalry was "small group market reform" legislation intended to eliminate the wide disparities -- up to 300 percent -- in the price of health insurance among small companies. The bill was supported by business groups that had hoped it would allow some small employers to offer health coverage for the first time.

"It's been a so-so session for business," Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said with uncharacteristic reserve Monday night as the 1992 regular General Assembly session drew to a close.

At the same time, Mr. Hutchinson and others counted their blessings over some of the bills that failed. A tax package is still undetermined, but it seems that whatever compromise is reached will not raise or dramatically broaden the sales tax, although corporate taxes could increase to 7.5 percent from 7 percent under one option.

Also, a civil rights bill, intended to make Maryland law conform with federal law on harassment and discrimination in the workplace, would have led to more litigation between workers and employees, the chamber argued. The House-sponsored bill died in a Senate committee.

Employers also were pleased to see a tobacco-control act fail. It would have required companies to create policies on smoking and grant bargaining power to employees on issues related to smoking.

Successes

Not everything ended up in the legislative graveyard, however:

* A multiyear campaign to allow 53-foot truck trailers on Maryland roads finally succeeded. Businesses had argued that the old 48-foot restriction added to shipping costs.

* Downtown Baltimore businesses that want a "special benefits district" to help diminish the crime and grime that keeps customers away came a step closer to their goal. A bill to allow the city to create such a district, which would be financed by an extra tax on owners of commercial property in the downtown area, passed late Monday night.

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