Session enters final day

Education issues, inheritance tax await action by Assembly

Last-minute marathon

Also pending: bills on traffic stops, child health insurance

April 10, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Critical educatio issues top the list of unresolved items facing the General Assembly today as members gather for their annual marathon on the last day of the legislative session.

Also left are competing measures to scale back or repeal Maryland's inheritance tax - the only significant break proposed for taxpayers in a session fueled by a billion-dollar surplus.

The tax will stay as is unless senators or delegates budge from their positions by midnight, when the 90-day session ends.

"If I were to predict, I would say you would not see an inheritance tax cut this year," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Other pending matters include proposals to discourage race-based traffic stops and to expand a children's health insurance program.

Legislative leaders said this year's list of major last-day issues is shorter than usual. With a nationally recognized victory on gun safety, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has already declared the session a success. A few of his agenda items face action today, but most are expected to pass without difficulty.

"A lot of the intensity of the session ended after the gun bill vote," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Much of the passion that remains centers on education. Senate leaders are divided over whether to require Glendening to propose more money in 2002 for an academic intervention program favored by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

She and the State Board of Education have proposed a $49 million plan to end social promotion and provide increased support to low-performing elementary and middle-school pupils. The program is aimed at preparing students for new high school exams they will have to pass to earn diplomas.

The superintendent's allies in the General Assembly, led by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, are pushing the governor to spend more money to get the program off the ground. The governor, who put $12 million for the program in his 2001 budget, is resisting such a spending mandate.

Teacher salaries

The issue had been holding up Glendening's $80 million proposal to give local school boards incentives to raise teacher salaries by 10 percent over two years, starting next fall. Van Hollen tried to make the bill contingent on the governor agreeing to spend $45 million on academic intervention in 2002, but dropped that approach after it ran into opposition from Senate leaders.

Miller said that whatever happens with academic intervention, "teacher salaries are definitely going to pass." Negotiators are expected to agree on a final version of the bill today.

Another important bill in conference today is the governor's proposal to add about 19,000 children to the state's Children's Health Insurance Program. The two houses are divided over how many children to cover, whether parents should pay premiums and what role private employers should play in the expanded plan.

The issue of race-based traffic stops and searches has been caught up in political feuding. Last week, some black senators worked to kill a bill aimed at ending racial profiling because it was sponsored by Del. Howard P. Rawlings. The Baltimore Democrat had provoked their wrath by pushing for a performance audit at Morgan State University.

The governor is working with lawmakers to try to put the legislation back on track, said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill. "People need to put aside the personal differences and focus on the goals," Morrill said.

Inheritance tax

It is not clear whether Senate and House negotiators will meet today to discuss an inheritance tax cut. The House wants to eliminate the tax. The Senate bill would drop it for immediate family members, such as spouses, children and parents, but keep it for others, such as nieces and nephews.

Morrill said Glendening wants the sides to agree on a bill, but he isn't publicly backing either version. Before the session, he, Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. announced support for repealing the tax - and Republicans would be quick to pounce on any failure to deliver.

Van Hollen, the lead Senate negotiator, said progress has been slow. "I'm not sure talking is going to do any good," he said.

Another bill in serious trouble is designed to prevent Orthodox Jewish men from prohibiting their divorced wives from remarrying.

The legislation, which passed the Senate last month, would allow a couple to get a civil divorce only after the husband has granted the wife the necessary Jewish decree to allow her to remarry. But the bill has not come up for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, in part because a Jewish member of the committee opposes it.

Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the issue should be addressed by the Jewish community, not by Maryland law. Grosfeld, a leader in the unsuccessful fight against state aid to private schools, said she worries about a trend of blurring the line between separation of church and state.

Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron, Gady Epstein and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Today's highlights:

Senate meets, 11 a.m., Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets, 11 a.m., House chamber.

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