Legislators maneuver to smooth finish Convention Center OK paves way for quiet final hours

April 13, 1993|By John W. Frece and Marina Sarris | John W. Frece and Marina Sarris,Staff Writers Staff writers Michael Hill and Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

The General Assembly crushed resistance from Montgomery County yesterday and easily approved a $151 million expansion of Baltimore's Convention Center as legislators moved to a quiet finish to the annual 90-day session.

Without the suspense that a Senate filibuster or crucial nighttime vote would have created, and without the divisive tax issues that sent last year's session into overtime, lawmakers spent their final 14-hour day mechanically thrashing through hundreds of bills before adjourning at midnight.

On the final day, the lawmakers also:

* Overwhelmingly approved a measure to increase financial oversight of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland and made the state's Insurance Division an independent agency. * Approved a bill changing the supervisory structure for the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

* Approved a $350 million capital construction budget for next year, including a revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, a huge performing arts center at the University of Maryland College Park, and $80 million to build public schools.

* Approved the governor's proposals to crack down on parents who don't pay child support, including a provision to require hospitals to ask unwed fathers, after their children are born, to sign a petition acknowledging their paternity.

* Gave the tobacco lobby a victory as a conference committee failed to reach agreement on a bill that would have raised fines for those who sell cigarettes to children.

* Approved a proposal by Baltimore Del. Ralph M. Hughes to give the mayor and City Council authority to ban liquor advertising on billboards.

* Approved legislation giving victims of violent crimes and their families the right to appeal if a judge refuses to let them attend the trial or deliver an impact statement during sentencing.

"We're one of the first states in the nation to give this kind of protection to crime victims," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent.

All in all, it was a quiet end to a relatively quiet session. Sandwiched between the financial calamities of 1992 and the elections of 1994, lawmakers did their best to stay out of the news.

They barely mentioned the word "taxes" and rejected almost all attempts to raise fees. They kept increases in state spending to a modest 2.5 percent, roughly equivalent to the expected growth in the economy, and added $50 million to a "rainy day" fund in an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of returning again to fix an out-of-balance budget.

Instead, the Assembly focused on a long list of health care bills that, taken together, should change the way medical care is practiced and paid for in Maryland.

"I think it was one of the best sessions we've ever had," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said. "Everything I really cared about, all the major things were passed. No. 1, of course, was the health bill."

As the final day began, the question was whether the Convention Center project would survive a threatened filibuster by Montgomery County senators. A top priority of city businesses, the expansion would help Baltimore lure conventions away from cities with larger centers, supporters said.

The House got the bill rolling early, approving it 105-29 in the first hour of business.

But across the hall, Montgomery County Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Republican, slowed it down for about two hours. He called the project "simply a bailout of the hotel industry in Baltimore," which he said had overbuilt and was trying to find ways to fill empty rooms.

His colleagues, however, crushed two attempts to delay a vote and, in a rare action, mustered the 32 votes needed to limit debate the first time they tried. The bill passed just after noon, 41-6, with the six Montgomery senators alone in their dissent.

Approval of the bill to increase regulation of Blue Cross followed in early afternoon.

"It is the stiffest regulatory language for any insurance company, domestic or foreign, we have operating in Maryland," said Del. Gerald J. Curran, a Baltimore Democrat.

The measure sets minimum surplus requirements for the company and gives the insurance commissioner broad authority remove directors and oversee company finances, including investments in subsidiaries.

Regional disputes that were expected to polarize the legislature this session never materialized, and passage of the governor's budget was the most harmonious in years.

Thanks to an improving economy -- and revenues from the controversial new keno lottery game -- the vexing and often partisan battles over tax increases or spending cuts that characterized the previous three sessions were gone. Last year's fight became so fractious that the legislature extended the session an extra week to work things out.

This year's 90-day session, by contrast, was interrupted early by an unexpected event -- the public furor that arose in mid-February over the judicial appointment of former Del. John S. Arnick, who was accused of making sexist and vulgar remarks to two women lobbyists during a 1992 dinner meeting.

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