Assembly wraps up in a flurry

Anti-lead measure, health insurance bill, teacher raises pass

Big surplus fuels spending

Legislation to halt racial profiling in traffic stops defeated

April 11, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Wrapping up its annual 90-day session last night, the General Assembly passed two broad child health measures -- one requiring infants and toddlers to be tested for lead poisoning and another providing state-funded insurance for an additional 19,000 children.

Lawmakers also approved a plan designed to give public school teachers a 10 percent raise, passed a bill to cut Maryland's inheritance tax and agreed to create a state subsidy for airlines offering commuter service between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Cumberland, Hagerstown and St. Mary's County.

One of last night's casualties was legislation aimed at clamping down on police use of race in making traffic stops. The proposal, which would have required police departments to keep statistics about their stops, got caught in a bitter battle among black lawmakers.

"It's a real tragedy for the black community that we lost such a promising bill that would have set a national standard," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the bill's chief sponsor.

Yesterday's action capped a session highlighted by the passage of a landmark gun-safety measure pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, which will require built-in locks on all handguns sold in the state beginning in 2003.

Before yesterday's final flurry, legislators had wrapped up work on the state's $19.5 billion operating budget for next year -- a spending plan built lavishly on a $1 billion surplus.

Thanks to the surplus, lawmakers allocated money for an unprecedented building boom, a 4 percent raise for state employees and an 11 percent increase in funding for Maryland's higher education system.

The budget breaks new ground by including $6 million for textbooks for private schools -- a provision approved over the protests of public school advocates and civil libertarians who objected to sending state money to religious schools.

Despite the state's enormous surplus, lawmakers opted not to approve any major tax breaks, concluding that the 10 percent income tax cut passed in 1997 and being phased in through 2002 would suffice.

The Assembly did pass one significant tax bill last night -- to eliminate the state's levy on inheritances for some heirs.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. favored abolishing the tax, at an eventual cost to the state of about $50 million annually. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wanted a less costly alternative that would have eliminated the tax only for certain heirs -- children, grandchildren, parents and spouses.

The final version will abolish the tax paid by those heirs, as well as siblings, but leave it in place for "collateral" heirs such as nieces and nephews.

Glendening supported a cut in the tax and helped broker the final deal during late negotiations with legislative leaders.

The tax bill, like all legislation, must be signed by the governor before it can become law.

Health measures

Responding to reports of widespread lead poisoning in some Baltimore neighborhoods, the Assembly passed major legislation requiring children in high-risk areas of the state to be tested when 12 and 24 months old.

Children often are poisoned by dust from flaking and peeling lead paint. The paint was widely used before it was banned in Baltimore in 1951, and nationwide in 1978.

Although federal health guidelines recommend lead screening, only a fraction of children at risk are now being tested. In Baltimore, about one-third of children under age 6 were tested in 1998, according to state records.

State officials estimate that the legislation will cause an added 3,400 children to be tested in Baltimore next year -- a 50 percent increase. The tests are seen as vitally important because early detection of lead poisoning can limit the harm to children.

"It means there will be testing of kids by their first and second birthdays in the bulk of the state," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who played a key role in passing the bill. "This is a preventable disease. The sooner you test, the more likely you are to intervene medically before the damage is irreversible."

The Assembly also approved legislation offering state-funded health coverage to an additional 19,000 children from working families without insurance.

In a House-Senate compromise, eligibility for the program will be expanded to include households with incomes for a family of four of up to $50,000. Despite urging from advocates to move quickly, legislators opted to delay implementation until July 2001.

The measure also provides coverage for about 600 pregnant women not currently eligible for state-funded care. Some families will have to pay monthly premiums of $37 or $46 to help defray costs.

"There's no child in the state of Maryland now who shouldn't have access to health care," said Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House committee that handled the legislation.

The expansion will eventually cost more than $31 million a year, with the federal government picking up more than half the cost.

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