Tobacco showdown is likely

Senate, House differ in allocating $4 billion, could go down to wire

Major issues unresolved

`By time we leave here April 10, we'll have it all straightened out'

March 07, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly appears to be heading toward an end-of-session showdown over competing visions of how to spend the state's share of the national tobacco settlement.

In recent days, fiscal leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates have introduced vastly different bills allocating Maryland's tobacco windfall -- an estimated $4.2 billion over 25 years -- modifying and in some cases rewriting the plan submitted in January by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

With just more than a month left in the Assembly's annual 90-day session, major issues remain unresolved -- such as who controls much of the money, which diseases will be targeted, how much money should be focused on the state's African-Americans, and how long the plan will remain in place.

"It's going to be interesting," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, head of the Senate budget committee. "But by the time we leave here April 10, we'll have it all straightened out somehow."

Legislation introduced yesterday by House leaders would dedicate roughly $13 million from the tobacco payments to research and prevention of cardiopulmonary disease. The Senate plan concentrates on smoking cessation and anti-cancer programs.

"We know the major impact of cardiopulmonary diseases on the people of this state," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The House bill also would give a major role in battling tobacco-related cancer to community hospitals in the state's most populous jurisdictions, while the Senate proposal would channel more money through local health departments.

The House added an expensive new item to the discussions yesterday, earmarking $5.4 million in tobacco funds to subsidize prescription drug costs for senior citizens in rural areas.

Key senators said such ideas will dilute the tobacco money's effect.

"If you really want to make an impact, you can't spread it any thinner," Hoffman said. "There's not enough money in the budget to do all that."

While significant differences remain, leaders in both chambers said they were relieved that the disputed issues are coming into clearer focus with the introduction of competing bills.

"I have a real good feeling that we're finally making progress because we have a bill," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Until recently, it was unclear if legislative leaders could hold off a rush by many lawmakers and special interests to secure funding for their pet projects.

"With our bill, you won't have so much of this atmosphere where it's all up for grabs," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.

Overall, the governor is proposing spending $153 million from the tobacco restitution fund in the year that begins July 1, with $63 million allocated for education initiatives and $90 million going to tobacco crop conversion, substance-abuse treatment and other health programs.

Members of the Senate budget committee, led by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County, introduced a bill late last week to guide the tobacco-related health initiatives, which account for about $70 million in Glendening's budget proposal.

The Senate bill preserves the governor's priorities, but goes a step farther and lays out a framework for actually spending the money.

In Van Hollen's bill, nearly $30 million annually would go through local health officers, who would spend it on programs approved by an oversight board made up of health care providers, local education officials and others.

The House bill would allocate about $14 million through local health departments.

The Glendening administration has found much to like in the Senate bill, although it is pushing to have some of the tobacco money spent specifically in the state's minority communities.

The House legislation includes a provision for focusing a third of the smoking-cessation money -- about $10 million -- on the state's minority populations.

One potential stumbling block deals with the duration of the legislation.

The Senate version would allow the programs to remain in place through the expected 25-year life of the tobacco funds.

Under the House bill, the programs would expire in 2003, forcing the General Assembly to wrestle with the issue again before then.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

Senate meets, 10 a.m., Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets, 10 a.m., House chamber.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on SB 138, to require the public defender's office to represent poor defendants during bail review hearings, 1 p.m., Senate office building, Room 300.

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