Tough issues to close session

Assembly grappling with gay rights, death penalty in last weeks

March 18, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As the General Assembly enters its final three weeks, legislators are still wrestling with three of the session's most contentious issues: the death penalty, gay rights and public aid to private schools.

And looming over almost everything else is the governor's proposed budget -- a spending plan that Democrats and Republicans fear may be too optimistic in a slowing economy, even as they criticize it for providing too little money for health care for the poor.

Dozens of other issues, big and small, will be debated in the frenzied days before the session's end April 9, including helping the elderly with the high cost of prescription drugs and extending collective bargaining rights to university employees.

The fate of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gay rights bill could become clear as early as tomorrow. The bill would add homosexuals to the list of groups protected by state law from discrimination in housing and employment.

An evenly split Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee -- with only the chairman undeclared as to how he'll vote -- is tentatively scheduled to decide the matter tomorrow afternoon.

"We're feeling more confident," said Shannon Avery, chairwoman of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore's legislative and political action committee. "I think we stand a good chance."

Supporters say the legislation is necessary to provide legal protection to people who have no recourse against discrimination, but critics say it would represent state endorsement of behavior they view as immoral.

If the Senate committee approves the bill, supporters believe passage by the full Assembly is assured. A similar bill passed in the House of Delegates in 1999, and this year's bill is one of the governor's top legislative priorities.

"If the gay rights bill comes over to the House, that's not going to be any problem here, based on the record," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said.

Also waiting for a vote in the Senate committee, as well as in the House Judiciary Committee, is the issue of halting executions in Maryland until July 2003. Supporters of the death-penalty moratorium want the delay to give the state time to study whether the imposition of such sentences is racially biased.

"What we don't want to see happen is the study is completed [and] we realize there is something wrong with the system that could be changed, but we went forward with an execution," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, the bill's chief sponsor and a Baltimore Democrat. "I think we have the votes. I'm energized."

Although the issue has received more attention than in past years, some say the moratorium faces an uphill fight because it is politically unpopular and opposed by the governor. A recent statewide poll conducted for The Sun found that 44 percent of Marylanders support halting executions while the death penalty is studied.

The Senate and House are split on whether Maryland should continue to provide textbook money to private and parochial schools.

Glendening proposed $8 million in his budget for private school textbooks -- a $2 million increase in funds approved for the first time last year. The House has eliminated the program in its version of the budget, but the Senate budget committee has recommended spending $5 million.

"I think this is a crucial fight," said Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We need to keep public dollars for public schools, especially when our public schools have so many unmet needs."

Private school parents counter that they are taxpayers, too, and say they deserve state support for their children's education.

The private school textbook battle is a small element of the Assembly's larger debate over how much money Maryland ought to spend next year in a time of growing economic uncertainty.

The governor's initial budget proposal exceeded the Assembly's self-imposed spending limit by almost $200 million, and legislators have spent much of the session blaming him for profligate spending -- while accusing him of ignoring health programs.

Although House and Senate leaders are negotiating with Glendening, House members gave their approval to the outline of the governor's spending plans, with hopes that the economy doesn't go sour.

Days ago, revenue estimates for the budget year beginning July 1 dropped by $50 million, and Glendening announced a decision to delay $130 million in planned construction until December -- giving him the flexibility to use that money to fill in for the operating budget if the economy slows further.

"We're incredibly prepared if there is a downturn," said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the governor. "We essentially have not one rainy-day fund, but three of them."

Yet Republican leaders compare Glendening's spending plan to those before the recession of the early 1990s.

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