Ethics takes 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.

The Maryland General Assembly moved last night to cleanse its reputation for coziness with lobbyists, passing a series of bills aimed at distancing lawmakers from those who are paid to influence them.

In the last hour before its midnight adjournment, the assembly also approved a pilot welfare reform program, a measure to turn some state child support collection efforts over to a private company, and legislation to allow HMO patients to see doctors outside their networks if they are willing to pay for the privilege.

Also approved were measures to speed appeals in death penalty cases and to have the state begin licensing outpatient surgical centers.

The ethics 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, drinks or tickets to sporting or cultural events worth $15 or more.

Elected officials would be prohibited from accepting other types of gifts valued at $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 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.

The assembly gave final approval to legislation that imposes new work requirements on some welfare recipients after House and Senate conferees agreed to require the state to hire a private company to handle child support collections in Queen Anne's County and Baltimore.

Supporters believe a private company would do a better job than the state, which in turn should reduce the number of women who turn to the state for financial assistance.

To appease worried employee unions, however, city lawmakers insisted on provisions that would safeguard the jobs, salaries and benefits of the 350 employees affected.

Pilot program

The bill would create a pilot welfare reform program affecting about 3,000 recipients in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. The recipients would have to perform community service and enter job training after three months on welfare.

Lawmakers rejected a proposed "family cap" that would have denied extra benefits to recipients who have additional children after going on welfare. Instead, they directed welfare officials to use vouchers or some other means to limit the way families may spend the extra $80 they receive for an additional child. The money would have to be spent on diapers or other infant needs.

The so-called "patient access" legislation would guarantee patients in health maintenance organizations the right to see any doctors they want, although they would have to pay extra.

HMOs fought the bill, warning that it would undermine their ability to hold down medical costs and make insurance premiums affordable.

But the state medical society made the bill its top legislative priority. HMOs have upset many patients by restricting their choices of doctors and access to specialists -- practices that have eroded the incomes of some doctors.

Another regulatory bill would give the state more control over the burgeoning outpatient surgery business. Maryland has 111 independent surgery centers, which compete against hospitals.

The legislation -- passed with less than five minutes remaining in the 90-day session -- would require the centers to be licensed, a means of ensuring quality of care. It also would give the Health Resources Planning Commission more ability to regulate their growth.

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

Backers of the legislation to speed death penalty appeals said it could trim as much as two years off the average 11 years it takes for such appeals to run their course.

Efforts to reform the legislative scholarship program failed because delegates and senators could not agree on how to change it.

The House wanted to abolish the unique program, which allows legislators to hand out $8.5 million in college aid to constituents. The Senate, however, only wanted to make some changes. Both sides blamed each other for the legislation's demise.

Lawmakers occupied themselves by passing a $390 million capital construction budget, authorizing Ocean City to levy 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.

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