Death penalty bill fails in last hours of session

Final flurry includes passage of drug bill, licenses for lobbyists

April 10, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A bill to halt executions while researchers determine whether racial bias plays a role in Maryland's use of capital punishment died last night as the General Assembly adjourned for the year.

Wrapping up its 90-day session, the Assembly approved legislation to license the State House lobbying corps, to create a prescription drug program for low-income senior citizens and to establish a two-month amnesty period for delinquent taxpayers.

Legislators also passed a $505 million budget for construction projects and a measure to require public schools to teach lessons in gun safety, including a course developed by the National Rifle Association.

But the horse-racing industry took a hit as a House committee killed a bill to pump $10 million of state money into prizes at Maryland tracks, ending four years of such subsidies.

The final flurry of activity capped a session already defined by passage of three major liberal initiatives pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening - a gay rights bill, a measure granting collective bargaining rights to thousands of state college employees, and legislation increasing the amount of state work set aside for minority-owned businesses.

Finishing his seventh Assembly session as governor, Glendening declared himself a victor after also winning approval earlier in the session for a major new land-preservation program and a bill to stop racial profiling by police in making traffic stops.

"We made an all-out push to make this a more inclusive, fairer society," Glendening said yesterday. "And all of our initiatives prevailed."

In the end, what would have been a fourth significant piece of liberal legislation failed: the death penalty moratorium bill.

Supporters were disappointed - but not surprised - that the measure died in the sharply divided Senate last night after failing to win passage during a climactic voting session early Saturday.

The bill would have postponed executions for a year while researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park study whether there are racial disparities in how the state hands out the death penalty.

The measure had literally life-and-death consequences as four convicted murders - three black and one white - might face execution by the end of the year.

Realizing that they could not break a threatened filibuster, Senate backers of the moratorium reluctantly gave up their fight. In exchange for bowing out peacefully without stalling passage of other bills, the proponents - largely members of the Legislative Black Caucus - were handed victories on two other measures important to them.

One sets up a task force to study whether some felons should be allowed to vote. The other would give some felons easier access to DNA testing and require the state to keep relevant evidence.

But frustration over the moratorium bill boiled over about 10 p.m. when several dozen activists sitting in the Senate balcony stood and began shouting, "Hey Senate, just face it: Death row is racist!"

They were quickly dragged out by state police, but their chants continued to boom throughout the State House as they slowly filed outside into the rain.

The Senate session petered out in dispirited debate on the moratorium bill, which was by then clearly dead. A mix-up with the chamber's voting machine just before midnight robbed proponents of their one chance for a symbolic tally of support.

During the brief debate, black lawmakers appealed to their colleagues' conscience, linking the history of slavery to the high number of blacks on death row.

"Blacks probably feel it more than anyone else," Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the bill's chief sponsor, said of potential racism in the state's death penalty.

"This was a coalescing and a demonstration of people who really want to strike back and say: `This is wrong,'" the Baltimore Democrat said.

In other action yesterday, the House and Senate signed off on a bill to establish a $28 million prescription drug benefit plan for more than 30,000 low-income senior citizens. The state has earmarked $6.5 million for the program, while insurance carriers will pick up the rest of the cost.

Glendening had resisted such a move, but he agreed in recent weeks to provide funding for a program to act as a "bridge" while Congress works on a federal solution.

"The strength of the bill lies in the fact that it creates a direct, affordable prescription program for seniors," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who was an architect of the measure.

As with all legislation, the bill must be signed by the governor to become law.

New regulation of lobbyists

The General Assembly also gave final approval yesterday to a wide-ranging rewrite of the law governing State House lobbyists, a measure that allows the State Ethics Commission to discipline lobbyists who misbehave - and to even revoke their right to lobby.

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