Assembly opens with hints of a lively session, indeed

January 14, 1993|By Marina Sarris and John W. Frece | Marina Sarris and John W. Frece,Staff Writers

The 1993 Maryland General Assembly opened with calls for "healing" yesterday but immediately turned fractious as Montgomery County lawmakers sharpened their knives against Baltimore and a Baltimore delegate revolted against House leaders.

The opening gavels had barely sounded before some legislators made it clear they were still hot over regionally divisive budget cuts last fall and a failed coup in the House of Delegates. Even a retired Montgomery County senator who returned to the State House to receive an award used the occasion to complain about how the legislature had treated her home county.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is likely to stir up the lawmakers even more today when he delivers his sixth State of the State address to a joint session at noon.

He will outline a controversial program to combat unwanted pregnancies among teens, welfare mothers and women of all socioeconomic classes through the promotion of the five-year Norplant contraceptive for women and vasectomies for men. The state also would offer vasectomies to inmates as they leave prison under the plan.

Daryl C. Plevy, the governor's legal affairs aide, defended the initiative. "It doesn't just target poor babies. It targets the whole range. Some of the stuff that is in here definitely is aimed at middle- and upper-class people."

The governor also is expected to call for tougher, state regulation of slot machine gambling on the Eastern Shore, throw his support behind anti-stalking bills, propose that carjacking be made a crime, and suggest creation of a board to oversee the state's emergency medical response system.

The governor also may anger the legislature's many lawyers by asking the General Assembly to repeal the right of criminal defendants to automatically appeal district court convictions to the state's circuit courts.

There were some 4,600 such "de novo" appeals last year, clogging court dockets, forcing police and other witnesses to appear twice, and giving defendants two chances to be proven innocent, the governor's aides argue.

If yesterday's brief House and Senate meetings are any indication, the legislature may be facing a contentious three months. After a brief period of hugging and back-slapping, the respective chambers took up a little housekeeping.

The Senate routinely re-elected Democrat Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George's County to a sixth year as president.

The House did likewise for Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat who last month crushed an overthrow attempt largely led by dissenters from Montgomery County.

After a supporter described him as a man "concerned about the healing process we must now begin," Mr. Mitchell called for unity and pledged to improve "communication" in the House, which critics say he has ruled with an iron fist.

But many delegates remained skeptical. "Healing?" Montgomery Delegate Leon G. Billings asked afterward. "Is that spelled with two 'e's' "?

"This is a clearly divided institution. There's a major wedge between the city [of Baltimore] and Montgomery County that will undoubtedly be damaging to the city," he said.

In the Senate, former Montgomery Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut chided the legislature for its treatment of her home county.

"If you expected me to get up here and not address what you did in your special session you were wrong," she said, as she was honored for her lengthy career.

The city and its former suburban ally parted ways last fall when Baltimore voted for shifting the burden of paying Social Security taxes for teachers from the state to local governments. The measure passed, angering suburban Washington counties that will be hurt most by it.

Some delegates also lashed out yesterday at Speaker Mitchell's decision to abolish one committee and reassign its members to the remaining five.

In a surprise move, Del. John W. Douglass, a Baltimore Democrat, accused House leaders of changing his committee assignment in retaliation for his vote against the Social Security bill. Delegate Douglass was removed from the Appropriations Committee, on which he served for 22 years, and transferred to the Ways and Means Committee.

"This is an effort to punish me for my vote during the Social Security issue," Mr. Douglass told his 140 colleagues. Saying that "members of this House are not chattel," he announced that he would not serve on Ways and Means either. Legislative insiders cannot recall a similar occurrence in the last 25 years, at least.

Today the delegates and senators will come together in one chamber to hear the governor outline his family protection initiative, among his other goals for the next 90 days.

One of his bills will concentrate on making fathers pay child support, possibly resulting in welfare savings to the state. Mr. Schaefer wants parents who are delinquent in child-support payments to be reported to credit agencies and face suspension or revocation of their drivers' licenses if they don't pay up.

Those who delayed support payments by going to court would be required to make up those payments that would have been due while the case was being decided.

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