Final week for General Assembly

Priorities: Legislative ethics, juvenile justice and IWIF reforms still must be approved.

April 03, 2000

AFTER TODAY, state legislators in Annapolis won't have to worry about distributing a $1 billion surplus. Instead, they can turn to non-budgetary issues in the final week of the General Assembly session.

Tonight is the constitutional deadline for passing the governor's $19.6 billion budget. The focus for the remaining seven days will be on hundreds of bills that didn't get the attention they deserved in the swirl of big-money matters.

Here are four items we pinpointed before the session started as priorities. There is plenty of time to enact them all.

Juvenile Justice

There has been no action on a package of bills that would overhaul a state agency whose mishaps proved a major embarrassment to the Glendening-Townsend administration.

Scandals at the Department of Juvenile Justice's boot camps led to firings and an inquiry that revealed shocking dysfunctions.

Acting secretary Bishop L. Robinson has agreed to stay on, which is good news. He's a tough ex-cop and a skilled administrator. But he and the administration are resisting a proposed oversight commission to make sure that reforms happen.

Mr. Robinson is right that such a panel should not became an intrusive meddler. But an outside commission is essential for the public to have any confidence in an overhaul. It can blow the whistle if the administration's promises of change don't occur.

Legislative ethics

Lawmakers are proving remarkably tone-deaf to the clamor for tougher self-governing rules of conduct. An attempt by the top two General Assembly leaders to ban business deals between legislators and lobbyists has been drastically watered down.

In its place is a meek bill forcing lobbyists to disclose any deals with lawmakers that involve more than $1,000.

But this disclosure could be delayed until months after the deals take place and well after the legislative session has concluded.

Yet even this measure has run into strenuous opposition from legislators who don't want to be held accountable for their actions.

The amended bill still would be a step forward, however modest. Legislators have an image problem that needs to be addressed.

As Del. John F. Wood of St. Mary's County noted, state lawmakers are viewed with deep suspicion by their own constituents: "Everybody back home thinks they send you to Annapolis and you join a bunch of crooks . . . Because of a few, the rest of us look bad."


The Injured Workers' Insurance Fund also needs to start building public confidence. It can't, though, as long as it remains largely unaccountable for its actions and beyond the reach of the state insurance commissioner.

This quasi-government group insures one-fifth of all state businesses against workers' compensation claims.

While it is the insurer of last resort for many firms, IWIF bids aggressively against private underwriters for policies.

Yet IWIF is the only insurer in Maryland that doesn't answer to the insurance commissioner. It can raise its rates on a whim. No other insurer is allowed such freedom from regulatory oversight.

This is an unhealthy situation. A House bill would greatly increase the insurance commissioner's role in guaranteeing that IWIF is solvent and its rates are justified. A much weaker Senate version would give the insurance commissioner only limited oversight responsibilities over IWIF.

The House bill is better. IWIF wants to compete with private insurers but doesn't want to have the same regulatory safeguards. That's an invitation to scandal.

Farebox mandate

It is time for senators and delegates to untie the hands of state transit officials, who are required to recover 50 percent of their expenses through fares.

That policy is counter-productive. It stops the Mass Transit Administration from experimenting with suburban and neighborhood bus routes or keeping new routes alive long enough for them to become popular.

Besides, the MTA hasn't met the 50-percent mandate since 1996. Farebox recovery for Baltimore's bus and rail system is 43.7 percent.

The 50-percent mandate is one of the highest in the nation. More reasonable would be a 40-percent recovery rate. Such a bill has passed the House and a Senate committee. Both houses still need to agree on proposed amendments to the bill.

To increase mass transit ridership, the MTA must have flexibility for trial and error, and that will only come from passage of this legislation.

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