Legislators save toughest work for last Land use, Medicaid, welfare among issues left for final hours

'Highlights of the session'

Last-minute scramble is reliable ritual at session's close

April 08, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Diana K. Sugg contributed to this article.

With their annual 90-day session winding down to its final hours, members of the Maryland General Assembly face a host of issues to resolve before they adjourn at midnight tonight.

Like schoolchildren reluctant to tackle tough homework, legislators have put off final decisions on some of their most complex and politically difficult topics. The bills they could act on today cover a broad range from wilderness preservation and recycling industrial land to Medicaid and welfare reform.

In a session where headlines have been grabbed by professional football stadiums, gun control and gambling, these are the less-than-sexy bills that have gained less attention but are no less important.

"Some major policy decisions are going to be resolved in these last 12 hours," said Del. Donald C. Fry, a Harford County Democrat. "These are the highlights of the session, really the policy direction for the state."

Near the top of the list on this whirlwind day are a handful of environmental bills. One of the issues most likely to go down to the wire involves "brownfields," a proposal to encourage reuse of contaminated industrial land.

The House of Delegates and Senate have approved widely differing versions of the proposal, with the House plan seen as more pro-business and the Senate's preferred by environmentalists. Negotiators were said yesterday to be at a stalemate.

Meanwhile, environmental activists are anxious to get lawmakers to approve a plan to protect 22,000 acres of state-owned property as pristine "wildland." Late last week, a House committee approved a proposal that dropped from the program more than 2,000 acres in the Savage River area of Garrett County.

That version of the bill satisfied Western Maryland lawmakers, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who were unhappy that so much of the preserved land is in Garrett and Allegany counties.

But the fate of that legislation has been tied to Mr. Taylor's proposal to set up a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, a state board that would help manage, finance and promote historic, cultural and scenic sites as tourist attractions.

The plan, which would be financed by diverting money normally used to purchase parks or preserve farmland, still requires Senate support.

One of the most complicated bills pending deals with a plan to shift thousands of poor Marylanders into managed care health plans, a move many other states also are planning to help control sharply rising Medicaid costs.

Some key elements already have been decided. Managed care plans will have to pay school-based health clinics for any appropriate services they provide, and physicians who have cared for people on Medicaid will be guaranteed a contract with at least one health plan.

But this morning, legislators are expected to debate one of the last sticking points -- whether fledgling managed care organizations, such as the community clinics that are banding together, will have to meet the same solvency requirements as health maintenance organizations. Clinic advocates argue that those standards are too high.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to overhaul welfare also faces hurdles. While the House and Senate agree on many elements, significant differences remain. For instance, the Senate would cut aid to families with a disabled child, while the House doesn't want to make the $8 million reduction.

The welfare reform bill and another Glendening initiative, legislation to reform the state's personnel system and tie state employee pay raises to job performance, are expected to be approved, however.

Meanwhile, state employee unions, stymied in efforts to win support for collective bargaining, hope lawmakers will approve a program of early retirement incentives and aid to state workers who lose their jobs.

Legislators have a strong reason to approve the measure -- the $14.6 billion state budget they passed last week anticipates a $10 million savings created by an early retirement program.

Lawmakers also feel pressure to resolve their differences over the issue of "maintenance of effort," the state law requiring counties to spend as much for public schools on a per-student basis as they did the year before.

The crush of legislation is a last-day ritual as reliable as the annual April blooms of daffodils outside the State House. Some bills are destined to die by the clock. Others will move quickly, an often deliberate strategy to keep opponents off guard.

"This is a contact sport," said John B. Bowers Jr., a lobbyist for the Maryland Bankers Association. "If you snooze, you lose."

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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