Session's clock ticks down for Md. lawmakers

Taxpayer amnesty, prescription drug bill await final-day action

Potential for logjam looms

April 09, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Members of the General Assembly return to Annapolis today for a frenzied final day sorting through dozens of unresolved issues before the legislative session ends tonight.

The list includes an amnesty plan for delinquent taxpayers to generate extra revenue for mental health care and a proposal to help senior citizens with the high cost of prescription drugs.

"I'm concerned about getting the prescription drugs and the amnesty plans through," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "Those are the biggest things left."

Looming over today's busy calendar is a potential filibuster in the Senate against the proposed death penalty moratorium. Though the bill appears unlikely to pass, a lengthy debate could create a legislative logjam in the headlong rush to adjournment. The annual 90-day session ends at midnight.

"What happens if we have a long filibuster [today] is that any bill can die and every bill can die," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller warned.

Further complicating the legislature's task is the fact that neither the House of Delegates nor the Senate reported for work over the weekend. Both chambers took their final Saturday and Sunday off for the first time in memory, leaving conference committees with just today to resolve differences between House and Senate bills. A handful of legislators met Saturday to hammer out a final version of the state's capital budget.

"The madness of conference committees on Monday is going to be tremendous," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Among the high-profile issues in need of compromise are legislation to encourage charter schools, a measure to make Maryland the first state to require gun-safety education and efforts to revive the bay's blue crab fishery by curtailing the annual harvest.

By Friday night, lawmakers appeared to have resolved their differences over the prescription drug program and on legislation to toughen ethics rules for lobbyists.

The prescription drug bill aims to help 30,000 low-income senior citizens, allowing them to pay a $10 monthly premium and receive up to $1,000 a year in prescriptions. There would be a co-payment of $10 to $35, depending on the drug.

"I think we've got something that both the House and Senate can live with," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, the Finance Committee chairman. "We've got to get it through [today]. That's the one bill left before me that I'm really concerned about."

Both chambers still need to approve legislation creating an amnesty period for delinquent taxpayers. Analysts say it would bring in $30 million to $70 million.

The first $30 million is earmarked for deficits in the state's mental health care system. The next $8 million would go to school systems in nine economically distressed jurisdictions -- including $2.6 million for Baltimore City.

While Taylor has been pushing for the extra school money, some Senate leaders have resisted the aid because it would be paid for with a one-time revenue program.

"There's only one bill, and if the Senate doesn't accept our version then I don't think we'll have the taxpayer amnesty this year," Taylor said.

On ethics, negotiators appear poised to wait until next year to resolve their sharpest difference -- whether to allow lobbyists to serve on state-appointed boards and commissions.

The Senate had sought to permit lobbyists to serve on boards that are unrelated to their business interests, but House leaders insisted on a blanket prohibition. The compromise before the Assembly today would let lobbyists now on boards continue to serve for a year after the legislation takes effect, giving lawmakers time to craft a solution next year.

Lawmakers have completed work on most of the session's toughest issues. They've given final approval to legislation to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, to strengthen drunken driving laws, to grant collective bargaining rights to university employees, to prohibit racial profiling and to target more state contracts for minority businesses -- all priorities of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"Almost all of the governor's stuff is done," said Michael Morrill, a Glendening spokesman.

Glendening is hoping to persuade the Senate to approve the House version of the gay rights bill. While identical Senate legislation has passed both chambers, he would prefer to sign the House bill in recognition of its sponsor, Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery Democrat who has been championing the issue for nearly a decade.

Also today, senior lawmakers will be crafting a "message" to send to hospital rate regulators. Dissatisfied with the small rate increase the Health Services Cost Review Commission granted last week, they intend to drive home their point by attaching conditions to a bill raising the agency's budget.

The Senate Finance Committee startled the commission last week when it amended the bill to overrule the agency's 2.9 percent rate increase for hospitals, setting increases of 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent instead.

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