Solid achievements in Md. State House

General Assembly: Electric deregulation, tobacco tax, higher education reforms all pass.

April 13, 1999

MARYLAND'S 188 state legislators can head for home today knowing that they tackled some complex issues during their 90-day gathering.

That doesn't usually happen in the first session following statewide elections. Fifteen percent of the senators and 21 percent of the delegates were freshmen unfamiliar with the ways of Annapolis. It took strong, determined leadership by General Assembly veterans to give this session unity.

On the biggest issue, electric deregulation, leaders overrode objections from the governor, environmentalists and consumer advocates to approve a bill allowing both residential customers and businesses to pick their electricity suppliers. The bill also sets up a fund to insure that low-income families can pay their electric bills.

On discouraging teens from smoking, a Senate filibuster sent tempers flaring. A watered-down tobacco tax increase of 30 cents per pack disappointed the governor and anti-smoking groups, but it still is large enough to act as a deterrent. Lawmakers forced the governor to commit $21 million a year to an anti-smoking campaign that could have impact, too.

One of the quietest victories resulted in a major change in higher education. From now on, campus presidents will have far broader powers -- and more money -- to run their institutions without bureaucratic interference.

Lawmakers grumbled about embracing stricter ethics standards for themselves, but in the end they accepted the change.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening lost his top personal priority, a gay-rights bill. On such a deeply felt issue, the governor's threats and pork-barrel promises did not move lawmakers. Mr. Glendening should work over the next nine months to change legislators' minds and resubmit the measure next year.

The governor also had most of the money stripped from his bills to reduce classroom sizes in public schools and to create $3,000 state scholarships for every B-average Maryland college student.

Still, Mr. Glendening won far more than he lost.

Those state scholarships were delayed, not deleted. The same thing happened on putting more teachers in state classrooms. His focus on education generally won broad support.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor gained a big victory when the legislature approved a $10 million installment on his One Maryland fund to help distressed counties build infrastructure to attract businesses. Not only will Mr. Taylor's Allegany County benefit from this bill, but Allegany could be home to a new race track, thanks to the speaker's relentless efforts on another measure.

Legislators showed streaks of independence and self-reliance. They took the best of the governor's programs and molded them to their liking. They displayed remarkably good judgment in hammering out difficult compromises. The 1999 General Assembly session should serve as a solid foundation for the next three years.

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