Bill restricts privatizing of fire services Panel clears measure requiring voter action

March 20, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A high-stakes fight is building in the General Assembly over legislation that would make it harder for local governments to put their fire and rescue services into private hands.

The legislation, which narrowly cleared a House committee yesterday, would force jurisdictions to send to referendum any proposal to privatize those services -- a step local governments fear would effectively block any such effort.

The measure is being pushed by firefighter unions, who are solidly against hiring companies to put out fires or provide emergency medical services.

Such a step would cost union membership and, union officials say, sacrifice quality and dependability.

"All the bill says is if a county's going to do it, it goes to referendum," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., who is a firefighter and a co-sponsor of the legislation. "Everything will be out in the open and it will let the constituents of that jurisdiction decide if they want to do it."

While no counties in Maryland are actively moving toward privatizing fire or rescue services, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County have flirted with the idea in the last two years. Many jurisdictions around the country have turned some fire or rescue operations over to private firms.

But if Maryland adopts a referendum requirement, that would likely stop any privatization efforts here, said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

"If you put something on the ballot, you'll have the well-funded firefighters union out there working the referendum against some shy elected officials," Bliden said.

He said MACO is worried the bill could make it through the General Assembly over his group's objection for one simple reason: "It's a union-supported bill in an election year."

The bill also has sparked opposition from private ambulance and fire-service companies, who stand to lose the chance to gain a potentially profitable foothold in Maryland.

In the first vote on the legislation, the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee approved it yesterday 12-5, with five delegates abstaining.

Del. John F. Wood Jr., acting chairman of the committee, did not vote but criticized the measure for intruding on the rights of local government.

"I think we're straying into something we have no business being into," said Wood, a Democrat from St. Mary's County.

The legislation goes to the full House, where a floor fight is expected.

In the Senate, the bill was attracting so much opposition from local government officials that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller canceled a hearing on the bill scheduled for yesterday.

Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the Senate would consider the bill if it emerges from the House.

"I heard some very strong words about the bill," said Miller. "I wanted to make certain that we had all the facts."

In the midst of a legislative session that has been dominated by the issue of ethics, some opponents of the bill have privately criticized Malone and another of the bill's co-sponsors since both are paid firefighters.

In a whispering campaign mounted in recent days, critics have contended that Malone and Del. Brian R. Moe, a Prince George's Democrat, have an unacceptable conflict of interest on the legislation.

Malone and Moe voted for the measure in committee yesterday. In interviews later, both noted that they had filed required disclosures with the legislature's ethics committee before voting the bill -- a step spelled out in state ethics laws.

The disclosures, similar to ones filed by many other senators and delegates, note that they have an apparent conflict on the privatization legislation, but say they believe they are able to vote impartially on the matter.

"I'm down here looking out for my constituencies," said Malone.

He said it is not unusual for lawmakers to sponsor and vote on legislation that affects their profession.

"You have schoolteachers down here and their big to-do is education," Malone said. "And nurses down here looking at what goes on in the hospital. I'm a guy I hope people say is a good man when it comes to public safety."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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