Ethics take center stage ASSEMBLY'S FINAL NIGHT

April 11, 1995|By John W. Frece and Marina Sarris | John W. Frece and Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writers Sun Staff Writers Frank Langfitt, Peter Jensen, John A. Morris and John Fairhall contributed to this article.

Tarred by a reputation of being too cozy with lobbyists, the Maryland General Assembly tried to cleanse itself last night by passing a series of bills aimed at distancing lawmakers from those who are paid to influence them.

The bills -- prompted in part by last fall's felony conviction of the top lobbyist in Annapolis -- would force lobbyists to reveal the names of elected officials they treat to meals and drinks worth $15 or more and prohibit officials from accepting gifts costing $15 or more.

"I believe this will have a deterrent effect and will allow the public to judge if the gifts that legislators get are excessive," said Deborah Povich, lobbyist for the self-styled citizens lobby, Common Cause Maryland.

But even as legislators were voting on the ethics bills, tables in the lounges behind the House and Senate chambers were arrayed with trays of lox and bagels donated by the well-connected lobbying firm of Dukes, Evans, Rozner, Brown and Stierhoff.

Elsewhere in the State House were flowers and sandwiches donated by other lobbyists to help legislative staffers get through the session's marathon final day.

As the midnight adjournment approached, House and Senate conferees were still far apart on a half-dozen key issues. Among them were the state's latest attempt to put time limits and work requirements on welfare recipients and a companion effort to put a private firm in charge of some child support collections.

Also pending was legislation to speed up death penalty appeals and a pair of health care reform measures. One would permit HMO patients to see doctors outside their network if they were willing to pay extra for the privilege. The other would give the state more control over surgical clinics.

Efforts to abolish or reform the legislative scholarship program appeared to be in serious jeopardy last night. The program, the last of its kind nationally, allows legislators to hand out $8.5 million in college scholarships to constituents with few rules and no oversight.

By 8 p.m., a House-Senate conference committee formed to reach a compromise had yet to meet for the first time -- even though its members included the two presiding officers. When asked why, one House conferee suggested the Senate, which distributes the bulk of the scholarship money, was to blame.

"It looks like it is not in the cards," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who sought to abolish the perk.

Instead, the lawmakers occupied themselves by passing a $390 million capital construction budget, authorizing Ocean City to slap a local sales tax on restaurants to pay for renovation of its convention center, and approving a series of small tax breaks that will save targeted businesses about $45 million annually by the year 2000.

The tax relief would go to vending machine operators, car leasing and rental agencies, research and development companies and businesses that maintain fleets powered with natural gas and other alternative fuels.

Bankers won approval of a change in a 27-year-old tax law that has treated banks differently from other corporations. The legislation would save banks up to $3 million annually and, supporters said, keep bank jobs in Maryland.

The legislature also approved a bill to take away early pensions from three of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's top aides. They qualified for the pensions by being "involuntarily separated" as Prince George's County employees when Mr. Glendening, then the county executive, asked for their resignations.

As with other legislation, the bill will become law only if signed by the governor.

The blitz of action on the final day contrasted sharply with the pace of a session that began slowly and barely picked up speed after that. With 44 percent of the delegates and senators new, assembly leaders approached the 90-day session as largely a learning experience.

Lawmakers postponed until next year an array of hot-button issues, including gun control, the legalization of casino gambling, collective bargaining for state employees, and the spending cuts necessary for income tax relief.

"It's dress rehearsal. Pre-Broadway," joked Speaker Taylor. "We're going to be dealing with a plateful next year."

Nevertheless, the 1995 General Assembly managed to adopt a series of measures friendly to business. Responding to complaints that the high cost of relocating employees in Maryland is one reason companies move elsewhere, lawmakers voted to reduce closing costs for first-time homebuyers. They also cut the unemployment insurance surtax that businesses pay.

The governor won permission to increase from $4 million to $20 million the amount set aside in a discretionary "Sunny Day Fund" to attract businesses to Maryland. He also convinced the legislature to increase the amount of state business earmarked for minority-owned firms from the current 10 percent to 14 percent.

"I believe we have probably the most successful pro-business, pro-job session in the last two decades," Mr. Glendening gushed.

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