Veto threatens bill requiring lead screening

April 18, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

A bill that would require more screening of Maryland children for lead poisoning is endangered by a veto threat, prompting health advocates to accuse the Schaefer administration of a political betrayal.

The screening measure passed on the last day of the 1994 General Assembly session in tandem with a better-known administration bill, which would shield landlords from costly tenant lawsuits provided certain repairs are made in the oldest rental properties.

Children's advocates say the screening bill, sponsored by Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, was the price of their support for the administration bill, which had been weakened by Senate amendments tacked on at the behest of Baltimore's largest landlords.

But David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary, said Friday that he may ask Gov. William Donald Schaefer to veto the screening bill because it is "just not practical" and is "unaffordable."

"It's going to be very difficult, and I'm not sure what the return is," Mr. Carroll said.

Advocates reacted angrily to news that the screening bill is in jeopardy, warning that if the governor vetoes it he will be reneging on an agreement his aides consented to that linked the two bills.

"There was a very clear linkage," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who championed the cause of children's advocates. "I have every reason to believe the administration was aware of that linkage, and absolutely no one said anything to me on [the last day] that [the Hubbard bill] created a problem."

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning, said, "All they were interested in was protecting the landlords. We were lied to."

But Mr. Carroll denied that he knew of any agreement, and he said he had repeatedly raised objections to the screening bill's costs and inconsistencies with the administration's own legislation.

The governor will decide by May 26 whether to sign or veto this and all the other bills passed by the legislature, said spokesman Joseph Harrison.

Amid jockeying by legislators and lobbyists, both bills were bottled up in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee until the legislature's final day last Monday.

The administration bill, based on the recommendations of a governor's study commission, requires upgrading 160,000 older rental housing units statewide that contain lead paint. Landlords, besieged by hundreds of lawsuits claiming tenants' children were poisoned, would have to pay no more than $17,000 per child for treatment and relocation to safer housing.

To overcome landlords' objections, the requirements and penalties in the governor's bill were relaxed by the Senate panel so much that some advocates who had supported the measure threatened to try to kill it. But advocates were appeased by the passage of the Hubbard screening bill, which they contend will bolster prevention efforts by targeting lead poisoning "hot spots."

Stewart Levitas, a member of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, said he and other city landlords took no position on the screening bill.

Mr. Carroll said the state already plans to focus its screening efforts on high-risk areas of the state, as the Hubbard bill would require. Children will be tested first in Baltimore and elsewhere around the state where poisoning cases have turned up most often in past years, as well as in neighborhoods with older homes that are likely to contain lead-based paint.

The problem, he added, is a requirement in the bill that the environment department coordinate state and local health departments' "case management," or tracking, of each child with an elevated level of lead found in the bloodstream.

Local health departments now follow about 4,000 children statewide -- most of them in Baltimore -- after blood tests detect they have lead levels of at least 25 micrograms per deciliter. The new bill would require tracking any child with lead levels as low as 15 micrograms per deciliter -- which could double the workload, Mr. Carroll said.

The legislature's budget analysts predict the extra screening and "case management," in which local health workers would track each child, would cost the state $2 million more a year, even with the prospect that the state could receive more federal grants to help out.

The administration's bill would raise $3.7 million for lead poisoning prevention efforts by levying annual fees of $5 or $10 per unit on all rental properties in the state built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned. But that money must be stretched to cover many other activities, Mr. Carroll said, and the administration projects spending more than $1 million less on screening and follow-up than the Hubbard bill would require.

Mr. Carroll also questioned the need for the Hubbard bill. Though children may suffer developmental and learning losses from chronic low-level exposure to lead, guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control do not call for aggressive tracking of lead levels as low as 15 micrograms per deciliter, he said.

Whatever the merits of the screening bill, its veto could shatter the fragile truce between children's advocates and landlords that broke a political stalemate over resolving the state's long-standing lead poisoning problems, warned Lisa Kershner, staff director of the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission.

"If one [bill] goes through and not the other," she said, "it will undermine any spirit of cooperation."

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