For Assembly bills, it's now or not at all

April 11, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

At midnight the 1994 session of the Maryland General Assembly will be history, and so will efforts to reform welfare, speed up death penalty appeals and raise cigarette taxes if lawmakers don't hurry.

They must strike a compromise on those issues today or their work on them during the last 89 days will amount to nothing.

The only certainty on the final day of a legislative session is uncertainty. Any bill awaiting action is vulnerable to a last-minute power play, a Senate filibuster, pressure from lobbyists or just plain lack of time. Every year bills fail just because midnight arrives before lawmakers can vote on them. John R. Stierhoff, the top aide to the Senate president, said he expects a "steady pace" of work throughout the day.

The most emotionally charged bill on today's agenda is the governor's plan to deny higher welfare payments to mothers who keep having children. The Senate approved the so-called family cap by a wide margin, but the House rejected it.

The controversy does not end there. Senators want to allow welfare mothers facing unwanted pregnancies to get state-financed abortions.

Both sides say they want reforms. Other parts of the bill, such as a requirement that some welfare recipients work or perform community service after 18 months, are popular in both houses.

But whether the two sides can come together on the family cap and abortion remains in doubt.

"There is so much desire on everyone's part to walk out of here and say we did something about welfare reform," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany. "It is unfortunate the debate focused on the family cap, like it is the only thing in that bill. It's not. There are lots of good things in that bill."

Two of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's other major proposals in his final session also remain unsettled.

A bill raising the state cigarette tax is expected to reach the floor of the Senate, but it faces some formidable opponents, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

The novel proposal would link Maryland's 36-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to the federal levy. Every time Congress raises the federal tax, Maryland's would automatically go up by an additional amount still under discussion. The governor and Speaker Taylor, who pushed it through the House, say higher taxes will discourage people from smoking while providing revenue for Maryland.

But a number of senators are holding their noses: Why raise taxes, they ask, when the state isn't in dire need of the money and it might anger voters this election year?

A major supporter of the tax, Sen. Laurence Levitan of Montgomery County, sounded yesterday like a man expecting defeat. "There may be enough votes to pass it, but there's not enough to block the filibuster" it might spark, he said.

The Senate also will take up another Schaefer initiative with doubtful prospects -- a bill to streamline the costly and time-consuming appeals in death penalty cases.

No one sentenced to death in Maryland has been executed since 1961, in part because the appeals process is too long and complicated, Mr. Schaefer has said.

The bill was weakened by the lawyer-dominated House Judiciary Committee and at one point almost killed by the Senate. Opponents in the Senate argued that the death penalty is fundamentally unfair because courts are more likely to impose it on blacks. Even if the Senate passes the bill today, it would have to go back to the House for approval.

The governor's chief lobbyist, Bonnie A. Kirkland, is optimistic about that bill and others. "A lot happens on the last day. I'm not losing hope on any of them," she said.

A lot is expected to happen today on a sweeping anti-crime bill sponsored by Sen. Nancy L. Murphy, a Baltimore County Democrat, and others. The House and Senate agree on provisions requiring violent criminals to serve at least half their prison sentences before becoming eligible for parole, rather than the current one-fourth. State officials say about 500 of Maryland's 20,000 inmates would remain in prison longer if the bill is enacted.

Both chambers want to increase sentences for violent repeat offenders with tough three-time loser laws, but they have different ways of going about it.

The House is pushing a plan that would allow people with no-parole sentences to seek parole when they reach age 65. Elderly people are less likely to commit crimes, delegates say, and paroling them would save money that otherwise might be spent turning prisons into nursing homes.

Negotiators also will try to hammer out differences on the degree of openness they want to impose on Maryland's Parole Commission.

The Senate wants to open almost all parole hearings to the public in order to make commissioners accountable for their decisions.

The House doesn't want to go that far. Under its proposal, parole hearings would continue to be closed unless a victim requested otherwise.

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