Assembly racing to finish its work at session's end

Capital budget, CareFirst among many issues left

April 07, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Even as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. starts to decide what bills to veto, members of the Maryland General Assembly will try to finish critical negotiations today as they sprint toward the conclusion of the legislative session.

With lawmakers set to head home at midnight, they still must decide whether to pass several of Ehrlich's initiatives and compromise on how to refocus the mission of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the state's large nonprofit health insurer.

They must also approve a $742 million capital budget that pays for school construction, hospitals, environmental programs and other needs. Senators and delegates will try to break an impasse over whether money for smaller, community-based projects should be included in the borrowing program.

City lawmakers also face a last-minute struggle over changing dates for Baltimore's primary election and whether to accept a plan being pushed by the Senate president to limit the next mayor and City Council to two-year terms in 2004.

Other issues to be decided include a proposal to allow local police to set radar cameras to ticket speeding drivers, whether undocumented immigrants can receive in-state tuition at Maryland public colleges and how to ensure there's enough money for the state's threatened network of trauma hospitals.

"There are a lot of conference committees out there, and time is running short," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

But the first Republican governor in 36 years is warning that he could veto several bills. Ehrlich plans to meet this morning with his top staff to begin deciding which measures won't be signed into law. "We will get into bills that are veto bait," Ehrlich said, adding that any bill that costs money "is going to have a potential problem."

Lawmakers have approved such major measures as the $22.4 billion budget and a proposal to reduce penalties for terminally ill patients arrested for possessing marijuana.

Part of the spending plan is set to face the Ehrlich veto: a $135 million tax-increase proposal that Democrats passed Saturday over the governor's objections.

Last week, a House committee delivered a stinging blow to Ehrlich's agenda by defeating a proposal to legalize slot machines at Maryland racetracks - something the governor had made his top priority.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who led the effort to defeat slots, said there is almost no chance the bill will be revived during the session's final hours.

Maryland's first divided government in more than three decades was involved in several partisan battles, most notably one over Ehrlich's choice for environmental secretary, whom the Senate rejected.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called the session "a disaster," saying, "For all my years, it has been collegial; but this year, there have been new elements in the mix that have made this a very unpleasant, very unhappy experience."

That unpleasantness is spilling into a battle over the state's capital budget. A deal seemed close Saturday for the Senate to accept a House list of $12.7 million in projects. But when a negotiating committee met yesterday, the deal was off, and lawmakers involved in the talks say that acrimony between Miller and Busch is the cause.

"To jeopardize the $740 million capital budget of the state of Maryland - which funds hospitals, universities, and environmental cleanup programs - simply because the Senate president is mad at the speaker is an amazing event on the last day of the session," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Another partisan clash could erupt today if Ehrlich chooses to act quickly to veto the tax package, though he may just wait until the Assembly leaves town.

If the package is vetoed today, House and Senate leaders could attempt to override Ehrlich to assure they leave town with a balanced budget. "The votes would be here to override his veto," Miller said.

Republicans say they are itching to see that fight, which, they say, would open Democrats to criticism from constituents opposed to higher taxes. "As someone responsible for getting more Republicans down here in 2006, it would be joy to see them try," said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr.

Barring a last-minute fight over taxes, Redmer and other lawmakers are predicting a fairly routine close to legislative business. "It could be a slow day; the volume of work is not that great," Redmer said.

But Busch cautions that important work remains. "This whole debate on the budget and slots have clouded a lot of other issues," Busch said.

Delegates and senators met through the weekend to resolve differences over how to best set up controls to keep CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield on its nonprofit mission.

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