Schaefer agenda is gutted Legislators stymie main proposals as session closes

April 12, 1994|By John W. Frece and Marina Sarris | John W. Frece and Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writers Frank Langfitt, John A. Morris and Robert Timberg contributed to this article.

Maryland lawmakers, cautious throughout this election-year session, played it safe to the end last night, passing a bill to get tougher on violent criminals but killing or watering down virtually every other important measure that might offend one interest group or another.

Showing no mercy for Gov. William Donald Schaefer in his final legislative session, the lawmakers killed three of his major proposals: bills to regulate gambling, to raise the tax on cigarettes and to speed up the death penalty appeals process.

They also weakened two others: his proposal to reform the welfare system, and a measure to deal with the lead paint poisoning problem in old houses in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state.

Less than two hours before their midnight adjournment, hopelessly deadlocked House and Senate conferees ripped from the welfare bill a contentious provision to penalize welfare mothers who have additional children while on public assistance. Stripped with it was a measure to lift restrictions on when the state's Medicaid program may pay for abortions for poor women.

Key House and Senate members worked most of the final day to strengthen other parts of the welfare measure, which they passed with about two minutes left in the session. But the administration wasn't happy.

"You don't have a bill of substance without a family cap. . . . You're modifying some things, maybe putting a Band-Aid on," state Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin said in a rare personal plea before the six-member conference committee.

The welfare bill as approved by the legislature still creates a pilot program for selected applicants in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. This provision is similar to legislation President Clinton has promised to deliver to Congress this spring in that it expands job training for persons on welfare and requires those still unemployed after 18 months to join a work program.

Last night, Ms. Colvin left open the possibility that the Schaefer administration might seek a federal waiver to institute the family cap even though the legislature disapproved of the idea.

Another administration bill to limit the liability of landlords in lead-paint poisoning suits in exchange for their renovation of older rental units was approved last night after being weakened by amendments favoring the landlords. One reduced potential fines against them from $5,000 to $250, and another gives them more time to repair problems that expose children to lead paint poisoning.

Last night marked the end of a session in which the General Assembly enacted no new taxes or fees, gave the state's 80,000 employees their first pay raise in three years (3 percent or $800, whichever is greater), banned the sale of 18 assault pistols and set aside more than $100 million to build schools.

Midway in the final 14-hour day, a separate group of negotiators reached agreement on legislation to require violent offenders to serve at least half of their sentence before they could be paroled, rather than the current one-fourth. State officials have said about 500 of Maryland's 20,000 inmates would remain in prison longer.

The measure -- later approved by both houses -- also attempts to make Maryland's parole commissioners accountable for their decisions by forcing them to open parole hearings if requested by the victim.

The legislation also contains a new two-time-loser provision requiring criminals to receive a minimum mandatory 10-year sentence on their second conviction for a violent crime.

The changes would be expected to add an estimated $29 million a year to state prison costs, and require construction of a $92 million prison by 1998. But Sen. Nancy L. Murphy, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the state has little choice. "I think the public wants protection from crime and they don't mind paying for it."

Other measures

On a different issue that pitted trial lawyers against doctors, the lawyers scored a big victory last night when senators and delegates agreed to place a $500,000 cap on jury awards in all future wrongful death and personal injury cases, with a maximum aggregate award to all plaintiffs in such cases of $750,000.

Doctors were worried about potentially huge medical malpractice claims without a cap on wrongful death cases, but ** lobbyists complained the new limit will still force malpractice premiums up as much as 30 percent or 35 percent.

Legislation to establish a statewide commission to license and regulate slot machines, tip jars, casino nights and other forms of legal gambling by veterans groups, fraternal clubs and volunteer fire companies was defeated by the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday morning before the full House and Senate had even convened.

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