Assembly's plate still full in final week

Schools, health care, environment largest of unresolved issues

Budget had been focus

Education funding called most pressing, intractable problem

April 01, 2002|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The annual Maryland General Assembly session ends in a week, and the to-do list for lawmakers remains meaty.

With a $22 billion state budget nearly complete, legislators will spend the next several days grappling with major initiatives in public education, health care and environmental policy before packing their Annapolis offices for the year.

Senators and delegates must decide what restrictions to impose on the state's nonprofit health insurer, CareFirst BlueCross Blue- Shield, before allowing a proposed sale to a for-profit company to be considered.

They must agree on whether to raise the tax on cigarettes and spend the money on schools, and determine whether the beleaguered Prince George's County school board should be restructured.

They will vote on how to protect fragile bay environments that line the Atlantic coast, and whether companies that store dangerous chemicals should pay additional fees.

Those and other issues have been debated for weeks but have played a secondary role as lawmakers figured out how deeply to cut Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed budget in the face of slipping tax revenue.

Working through the weekend, negotiators have resolved many of the differences between the two chambers' spending plans, clearing the way for other bills before the General Assembly shuts down at midnight April 8.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and most other lawmakers agree that the education-funding issue is the most pressing concern, and perhaps the most intractable problem.

The House and Senate appear prepared to support a 34-cent- per-pack increase in Maryland's cigarette tax, with up to $70 million of revenue going to public schools. But the chambers are divided on how the money should be distributed.

"Will the funding go to K-12 schools? Will the funding go to higher education?" Miller said. "If it is K-12, how will the money be divided? Will it be along the Thornton Commission formula? Or will it be something else? That's the big decision."

The Senate is committed to approving a long-term education-funding plan based on recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which wants to direct more state aid to the neediest districts. Two Senate committees agreed Friday night to adjust the Thornton formula to give extra money to Montgomery County, winning support from that county's senators, who had complained their jurisdiction was treated unfairly under the proposed formula.

But House leaders are unwilling to pass any long-term education-funding commitments. Instead, they want to divide the cigarette tax revenues and delay deciding on a formula until next year, when a study of Maryland's tax structure could be complete.

"The last week is going to be defined around the issue of additional funding for education," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "If we get beyond the impasse with the Senate, we will have provided a quarter of a billion dollars in new money for public schools."

The Assembly also must decide the fate of the embattled Prince George's school board.

Lawmakers from Prince George's and across the state have sharply criticized the board, particularly for trying to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts. The state school board blocked the county panel from doing that, but legislators have said they still must act.

The Prince George's Senate delegation could vote as soon as today on a proposal to replace the county's nine-member elected board with one made up of five elected members and four appointed by the governor and county executive.

That proposal has won approval from the full House - but some Prince George's senators, including Miller, said they would prefer an all-appointed board.

"We're still working on a compromise," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county's Senate delegation. "We won't leave here without doing something."

Lawmakers are certain to leave Annapolis having addressed the proposed sale of CareFirst to a California health care company.

WellPoint Health Networks Inc. would pay the state $1.3 billion in the transaction, but legislators are increasingly skeptical, especially after learning that CareFirst executives could share $33 million from the sale.

The House and Senate have passed legislation that could scuttle the deal. One Senate bill would prevent WellPoint from receiving money if the deal falls apart. A House bill would block the California company from using the BlueCross and BlueShield trademarks. Still to be determined is which of several bills will receive final approval in both chambers.

"I want to make sure before we close the door we have the right combination of bills," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which has handled most of the legislation, said, "There will probably be some options" for the governor to sign or veto.

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