Welfare, ethics law among tall hurdles in Assembly's --

April 10, 1995|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

Maryland legislators have until midnight to decide whether to abolish some cherished perks, improve ethics laws, reform welfare and cut business taxes.

They must reach compromises by the stroke of 12 tonight, when they adjourn for the year, or watch those bills go down the drain.

The last day of a 90-day General Assembly session is always frantic, and this one will be no exception. The fate of hundreds of bills will be decided as delegates and senators play their annual game of beat the clock. Any measure awaiting final action could perish from lack of time.

"By its nature, it's a crazy day," said Bonnie A. Kirkland, chief lobbyist for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "There's going to be a lot of maneuvering and posturing" by some of the 188 senators and delegates.

"There are going to be some very busy legislators trying to bring home welfare reform and scholarship reform and some health care reforms that are still being contested," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat from Cumberland.

The most politically charged bills on today's agenda attack perks of office cherished by some legislators. The measures would revamp ethics laws and reform a scholarship program controlled by legislators.

Voter dissatisfaction last November, coupled with the felony conviction of the top lobbyist in Annapolis, spurred efforts to tighten ethics laws.

One bill would end the anonymity most legislators enjoy when they are wined and dined by lobbyists. Lobbyists would have to reveal the names of lawmakers treated to meals and drinks if the tab is $15 or more.

The current law has such a large loophole that lobbyists rarely must disclose the recipients of their generosity.

The proposal, along with measures to restrict the sports tickets and gifts that legislators may accept, is a particularly touchy one in the Senate.

Opponents say they see no harm in accepting freebies from lobbyists because their votes are not for sale. Supporters of the measures, however, contend that such gift-giving erodes public confidence in lawmakers' impartiality.

Legislators predict that some revisions will pass, but say they may be weak.

Another controversial bill would end the legislative scholarship program that critics say amounts to outdated political patronage. The 127-year-old program enables senators and delegates to dole out $8.5 million in college aid to voters with few rules and no oversight.

The program, the only one of its kind nationally, has received a black eye over the years with reports of legislators who gave scholarships to the children of relatives, political supporters and the well-to-do.

The House of Delegates has again sought to abolish the program and turn over the money to a nonpolitical scholarship agency.

Senators, who hand out the bulk of the money, have refused to end the program but agreed to relinquish some of their control over it. They want to form committees, some of whose members would be picked by education officials, to choose the recipients.

Sensitive issue

The issue is so sensitive that the House speaker and Senate president have put themselves on the conference committee to hammer out a compromise.

Sources said the House may agree to some changes if the Senate promises to remove lawmakers from the program completely in a few years.

"It's a political dinosaur that ought to be killed. We're just having a tough time killing it," Mr. Taylor said.

For the second year in a row, lawmakers will be struggling to revise welfare on the session's final day. They are considering a plan to limit additional payments to families who have more children while on welfare.

To avoid punishing children, legislators are considering attaching strings to the money families receive for a new baby. The parents could spend the money only for diapers, baby formula and other infant needs.

At risk is passage of a pilot reform program that would require many recipients to perform community service and enter job training unless they found work after three months on the welfare rolls. The program would serve 3,000 households in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

"I think we can ultimately reach a compromise," Mr. Taylor said yesterday.

Child support collections

In a related issue, senators may try to revive a bill that would have turned over some of state government's child support collection duties to a private contractor.

The bill died by one vote in the Senate on Saturday, after opponents questioned the rush to approve such a dramatic measure.

Some say that the bill has been on the fast track in part because of the involvement of a well-connected lobbyist for a company interested in handling child support collections here.

Senators from Baltimore, which would be affected by the change, also worried about the impact on government workers in the city.

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