Assembly closes session with victories for governor

Collective bargaining, scholarships pass

April 13, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly handed Gov. Parris N. Glendening two policy victories last night before concluding its annual 90-day session, granting long-sought collective bargaining rights to state employees and approving a major new scholarship program for Maryland college students.

The legislature also signed off on a lucrative pension enhancement for state police officers, and it passed a bill to allow Medicaid to pay for care for the elderly and infirm at assisted living facilities.

In a pro-consumer move, lawmakers approved legislation that will allow homeowners to pay their property taxes on a semiannual basis, a measure that will reduce closing costs and bring a one-time refund averaging $700 to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders.

Lawmakers dealt Glendening one major setback yesterday, when a Senate committee dominated by conservative Democrats and Republicans failed even to vote on his bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Before yesterday's flurry, legislators had finished work on several major bills -- a 30-cent increase in the state's 36-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help curb smoking, a legislative ethics reform package, and deregulation of Maryland's electricity market, a move that will require consumers to choose their power company beginning next year.

Glendening and the General Assembly had also agreed to continue a $10 million state subsidy for horse racing purses in Maryland, as long as track owners fix up their facilities.

The racing legislation also clears the way for a third thoroughbred track in Maryland.

By night's end, Glendening had claimed victory on most of his liberal-leaning legislative package, even with the loss of the gay-rights measure and a 70-cent reduction in his proposed dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase.

HOPE scholarship program

After trying for the past two years, Glendening won final approval from the Assembly for a Maryland HOPE scholarship program designed to offer $3,000-a-year scholarships to "B" students from families with incomes of less than $80,000.

Students must agree to work in the state after graduating.

The program, which will cost the state about $48 million once it is fully funded in four years, represents a major shift in policy by awarding more state scholarships on the basis of academic achievement rather than financial need.

But the governor said the bill would provide an important enticement to high school students.

"You say to the students, `It's your personal responsibility,' " Glendening said of the HOPE bill.

" `You get the `A' or `B' and you can go to college.' "

Before passing the bill, the legislature removed a provision that would have allowed education majors who receive the scholarships to fulfill their work obligation by teaching in private or parochial schools.

A second Glendening education initiative passed yesterday will allow local governments to hire some 800 teachers and reduce the size of early-reading classes -- at a cost of more than $40 million to the state.

The General Assembly also approved a measure backed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to provide $1,000 signing bonuses for new teachers and other incentives to address a growing problem of attracting graduates into the field.

Collective bargaining rights

The governor won final passage of a bill that grants collective bargaining rights to thousands of state workers.

The legislation codifies bargaining rights that Glendening established three years ago in an executive order. But the governor said it was important to write those protections into Maryland statute.

"Just getting that in the law means almost certainly it will not be rolled back by future governors," Glendening said. "That in and of itself was tremendous."

The governor was unable to salvage a provision that would eventually have brought thousands of employees at state public colleges under the collective bargaining system. Supporters of that goal were disappointed.

"We're talking about people at the bottom, people who are doing the tough jobs, like the cleaning and the sweeping," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat.

"You're talking about the lives of people who do not get a living wage."

Yesterday's final approval of the bargaining bill represented a major victory for state employee unions, which had been seeking such legislation for decades.

"We've been fighting for it for more than 20 years. To say that it's historic is almost an understatement," said Sue Esty, lobbyist for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 92, which represents many state workers.

"It's going to make managers in this state take employees much more seriously."

State police pensions

Glendening also won passage yesterday of a bill to help one particularly favored group of employees -- Maryland State Police -- who will see their pensions sweetened significantly.

The legislation includes a provision that amounts to a legal double-dip for retirement-age troopers.

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