Low-key agenda set by business

Tight state budget, election year factors in Assembly goals

A defensive stance

Taxes, health care, transportation are leading issues

January 13, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Constrained by a tight state budget and election-year pressures, Maryland business has set a relatively modest agenda for the 2002 General Assembly session that focuses largely on defending against ideas they oppose.

Taxes, transportation and health care - as opposed to more narrowly focused business issues - are among the leading issues on the minds of business leaders.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce will try to ward off an expected proposal intended to close the budget gap by delaying a scheduled 2 percent income tax cut. Also, a coalition of business groups hopes to win a symbolic victory for a proposed highway linking Montgomery County and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

One of the most disputed business issues facing the General Assembly this year will be a proposal to change CareFirst BlueCross Blue- Shield to a for-profit firm and sell it to a California health insurer.

House leaders are eager to pass a bill that would make it harder for CareFirst to complete the proposed $1.3 billion sale to WellPoint Health Networks Inc., but a powerful Senate committee chairman has questioned whether legislation is needed this year.

The General Assembly session that opened Wednesday comes in the final year of the four-year legislative term. With an election looming in November, lawmakers can be expected to defer as many thorny issues as possible.

"If you can skate controversial issues, the General Assembly generally would prefer that option," said Dennis Rasmussen, a top lobbyist and former Baltimore County executive.

Another factor standing in the way of passing legislation is that it is the fourth year of the Assembly term. Many of the bills coming in have been considered and rejected before by the same cast of legislators. Proponents will introduce them to keep them in the public eye, hoping the next legislature will be more sympathetic.

With only a small fraction of the expected bills introduced, these appear to be some of the top business issues looming this year:

Unions and some contractors will be promoting a concept called "best-value contracting," under which past performance and qualifications, as opposed to the low bid, would be given greater weight in state procurement decisions.

Opponents, including nonunion and many minority contractors, will be opposing the measure, contending it is too subjective and open to political abuse.

Critics of the state's telecommunications providers will seek to impose a "code of conduct" governing how companies cooperate with rival firms in interconnecting networks. They can expect especially fierce opposition from Verizon, which, as the dominant local phone company, would be most affected by the measure.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. is pushing initiatives to extend the penetration of high-speed fiber-optic networks deeper into the rural counties. He complains that such areas are being left behind economically and is considering regulatory incentives and budget initiatives to stimulate construction of the network.

Many legislators believe they can no longer delay a fundamental reform of the state's open-enrollment health insurance program known as SAAC. Critics say the program fails to cover enough hard-to-insure individuals and gives insurers an overly generous discount on hospital bills.

Consumer groups will return with a proposal to let municipalities purchase electrical power in bulk at discounted rates on behalf of their residents. Utility companies have fought the proposal before and would likely do so again.

With state revenues taking a beating from the recession, legislators expect to see fewer proposals for business tax credits - which proliferated when the budget was flush.

High-technology advocates are still considering whether to reintroduce a bill they had high hopes for last year. The legislation would have allowed startup companies, mostly biotechnology firms, to sell their losses to profit-earning companies so the established companies could get a tax break and the fledgling ventures could gain needed capital.

Many high-technology advocates, especially those along the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, are more concerned about transportation issues than any specialized incentives for their industries.

The Maryland High Technology Council will join other business groups to push a joint resolution calling on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to restart the environmental study for the Inter-County Connector.

The measure could pass with the backing of Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, but few expect Glendening to back down from his opposition to the highway.

"It's really intended for the next governor," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who favors the proposed road.

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