Assembly ends with a flurry Passage of school aid for Baltimore City highlights final day

'It was a tough session'

Environmental bills, $15 billion budget also pass in last hours

April 08, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, Ivan Penn, C. Fraser Smith and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

In the last major act before concluding its annual 90-day session, the Maryland General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to landmark legislation that will send significant new state aid to the Baltimore school system and overhaul its management structure.

Before adjourning at midnight, the legislature also approved two major environmental initiatives pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, enacted a $15 billion state budget for next year and sent an $8 million package of help to the state's racing industry.

But in a last-minute dispute, legislators killed the the governor's proposal to provide state-funded health coverage to uninsured women and children from low- to moderate-income families.

The final flurry of activity closed out a productive but sometimes divisive session in which the legislature enacted the state's first major income tax cut and significantly strengthened the laws governing the financing of political campaigns.

"It was a tough session," Glendening said. "But I think people will look back on this session as very historic."

The 90th day was highlighted by final passage of the Baltimore schools bill -- the most controversial issue of the session.

After watching the bill squeak through the House on Saturday night with only a slim cushion, key senators decided yesterday that they would swallow changes the House made to the bill rather than get into last-minute negotiations with delegates. The Senate gave final approval to the legislation by midday and sent the bill to the governor for his expected signature.

"It's been a long haul," Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a key champion of the measure, said after the 33-13 vote. "I want to thank those of you who stood up for the kids of Baltimore."

The legislation, which seeks to reverse the fortunes of Maryland's poorest performing school district, will send $254 million in new state education aid to the city system over five years.

At the same time, the legislation will hand control of the schools from the mayor to a new school board, whose nine members would be appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor.

The bill has run into harsh opposition from some black leaders in Baltimore and some employees of the system worried about their prospects within the new management setup.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's eyes welled up with tears as he watched the Senate vote from the gallery. The mayor's support of the bill was a tacit admission that he has been unable to turn around the city's beleaguered school system.

"It was a historic moment," he said. "Now we can have a fresh start. We're ready to work with the state instead of against it."

"It's been a difficult process for me politically and personally," he said. "But I have felt all along that I was doing the right thing for the kids, and I still feel that way."

Enactment came despite the bitter complaints of lawmakers from Prince George's and Montgomery counties who said their areas, like Baltimore, need additional state education aid.

Assembly leaders called their demands excessive, and the final bill earmarks about $165 million in new aid over five years for the 23 counties, not the $324 million that had been sought.

Under the final version of the legislation, the new school board will stay in place beyond the five years of extra funding included in the bill. Some city officials fear that could lead to a situation in five years in which Baltimore would lose the money included in the legislation but would be "stuck" with the new school board.

'Betrayed'

"I feel betrayed," said City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. "There is no way by any stretch of the imagination that this can be portrayed as a partnership, because its effects will last far beyond the five years. It is nothing short of a takeover."

But Hoffman vowed to revisit the issue when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.

On its final day, the Assembly enacted a state budget, something usually accomplished much earlier in the session but held up this year by the governor to leverage passage of his anti-sprawl legislation.

The $15.4 billion budget includes no pay raises for state employees except the Maryland State Police, increases total aid to local governments by 8 percent, or about $200 million, and makes way for the first installment of the income tax cut. It also includes $147 million for school construction and renovation, the largest such amount in two decades.

Late last night, the governor saw his proposal to expand basic health insurance for women and young children from low- and moderate-income families fail.

While the Senate supported the bill, the House said the governor's proposal was too ambitious, as it would have provided basic coverage for women with family incomes of some $40,000.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the lawmakers could not agree on how many families should receive government-funded insurance.

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