Tough votes as session closes

On Assembly's last day, lawmakers face handful of contentious issues

Stalemate on capital budget

Regulations for lobbyists, CareFirst privatization still under consideration

April 08, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Members of the General Assembly return to Annapolis this morning for the last day of the legislative session, facing big decisions on the proposed sale of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and a final vote on a significant environmental bill.

Other issues to be discussed today include plans to disband the governing board of Maryland's second-largest county school system and a proposal to create exceptions in the state's lobbyist regulations that could benefit some large corporations.

And legislators still must approve a capital budget for next year. House and Senate negotiators were deadlocked last night on which construction projects and land preservation programs to fund, and were threatening to pass a plan without money for three of the governor's top environmental priorities.

The Assembly's 90-day session ends at midnight, and lawmakers have approved bills on such major issues as the budget, a landmark aid package for public schools, and new congressional and legislative district maps for the fall election.

So, unlike past years, House and Senate leaders say they're not concerned about bills falling victim to the time constraints of a frenzied final day.

"We are very much ahead of schedule," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "There are not a lot of significant issues still to be done."

Perhaps the most significant item left on the Assembly's agenda is the conversion of CareFirst from a nonprofit to a for-profit health insurance entity. If that conversion is allowed, the company intends to sell itself for $1.3 billion to WellPoint Health Networks Inc. of California.

The two chambers have taken different approaches to legislative oversight of the deal. The Senate is leaning toward giving Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen more leeway to approve the sale, while the House is seeking to set much more restrictive parameters - potentially so restrictive that they would scuttle the deal.

Health care proposals

Delegates and senators are expected to work through two other health care cost issues today: prescription drugs for the elderly, and community mental health clinics.

The authors of last year's legislation creating a prescription drug plan for low- and moderate-income senior citizens are hoping to pass a bill that would guarantee funding for three more years.

Meanwhile, the House might attempt to resurrect a plan passed by the Senate to impose a 2 percent tax on HMO premiums to provide more money for Maryland's underfunded mental health system.

Capital spending plan

On the capital budget, negotiators were at a stalemate last night over whether to fund bond bills - debts assumed by the state to help local governments and nonprofit groups with construction projects. The Senate is refusing to include any bond bills in the $720 million capital budget, while the House is insisting on $15 million worth of such projects.

Unable to resolve their differences, both sides were threatening to approve only the $633.5 million in projects on which they had previously agreed.

If lawmakers follow through on that threat, funding for three of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's environmental programs - Rural Legacy, GreenPrint and Community Parks and Playgrounds - would be eliminated next year.

"We are very concerned," said T. Eloise Foster, Glendening's budget secretary.

The spending plan also would cancel money for dozens of other projects, including the Baltimore Zoo redevelopment and a new library at Morgan State University.

Education initiatives

Prince George's lawmakers have been working on a plan to throw out their elected school board and replace it with a panel appointed jointly by the governor and the county executive.

The House and Senate have agreed they are so frustrated by the antics of the current board that an appointed panel is the best alternative. But they still have minor disagreements over such issues as how long the current superintendent would be allowed to stay before having to reapply for the job, said Democratic Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, chairman of the county's Senate delegation.

The legislation passed by the Senate would require the Prince George's County Council to impose a phone tax, raising about $20 million in local funds for education in addition to $23 million in extra state aid next year.

"With all of this money, it is going to mean a new and bright day for the children of Prince George's," Miller said.

Also pending in the area of education is whether Maryland will approve its first law aimed at encouraging school competition. For the second straight year, both chambers have passed bills designed to encourage the formation of charter schools. Last year, House and Senate negotiators failed to bridge their differences, and the legislation appears headed for a similar fate today.

Other issues still before the Assembly include:

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