Lawmakers OK health bill, setting up veto showdown

Flurry of activity as session winds down

General Assembly

April 10, 2005|By David Nitkin, Andrew A. Green and Sumathi Reddy | David Nitkin, Andrew A. Green and Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Pushing to wrap up business as they head toward adjournment, Maryland legislators gave final approval yesterday to a bill requiring large companies, principally Wal-Mart, to spend a specific portion of their payroll on health care costs or pay a tax to the state.

The measure, which has drawn national attention and criticism from radio host Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators, was adopted during a fast-paced day of lawmaking as the General Assembly prepares for the end of the session at midnight tomorrow.

Legislators passed a $26 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 - the only constitutional requirement for the session - and approved legislation to expand the definition of hate crimes to include offenses against people because of their sexual orientation.

And in a politically charged move, the Senate gave tentative approval to a plan to move the party primaries from September to June in the 2006 elections.

Republicans said the primary change is designed to give Democrats time to recover from what is expected to be a bruising gubernatorial primary between Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in time to mount a strong challenge to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

If given final approval by the Senate, the bill would go to the House tomorrow, where delegates have not debated the idea.

With scores of bills zipping through and between chambers, lawmakers left themselves a large but manageable load for tomorrow's last day of the session.

"It will be sort of anticlimactic because all of the big, controversial bills have passed," said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and speaker pro tem.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he will veto the health bill, called the Fair Share Health Care Fund, but he expects his veto to be overridden when the Assembly reconvenes next year.

The bill requires corporations with more than 10,000 employees to spend a percentage of their payroll on employee health care - 8 percent for private companies and 6 percent for nonprofits. If they don't, they would pay to the state the difference between their expenses and that 8 percent threshold. Four companies in Maryland have 10,000 employees or more. Only Wal-Mart likely would have to pay the tax; Giant Food Inc., the Johns Hopkins University and Northrop-Grumman would not.

"It just goes to a more fundamental problem, which is a lack of care manifested by the leadership down here toward the business creators in the state," Ehrlich said on a WBAL radio show. "When Limbaugh spends 30 seconds trashing Maryland ... it sends an incredibly bad message."

Ehrlich already has vetoed two measures, one to change the appointments process to the Board of Elections and the other to restrict the governor's ability to make international trade agreements. The Senate overrode both vetoes yesterday; the House hasn't taken them up yet.

Both the Senate and the House unanimously approved budgets for the coming fiscal year, with scant debate.

Lawmakers cut about $150 million from the spending plan introduced by Ehrlich in January. The budget, which contains neither new taxes nor revenue from slot machines, includes a record increase of nearly $400 million for K-12 education as mandated by a reform plan for public schools passed by lawmakers in 2002.

It also includes a $43 million increase for the state's university system but leaves roughly $400 million in unspent surplus funds that are expected to help lawmakers balance next year's budget without tax increases or large spending cuts.

Fiscal leaders in both chambers expressed concern, however, that important social services programs were underfunded.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the budget especially underfunds the Department of Juvenile Services. He also raised concerns about using one-time transfers to balance the budget.

In the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, echoed concerns about one-time transfers and the juvenile agency. "This department needs serious reform, and in order to achieve that reform, needs serious funding," he said.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, criticized the House Democratic leadership for not funding a tax credit for military retirees that the governor proposed.

The Senate unanimously approved more than 100 long-delayed gubernatorial appointments to boards and commissions, ending a months-long impasse between the governor and Democratic leaders.

One appointment, of Richard E. Hug to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, received a separate vote at the request of Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Brochin said Hug's "philosophy of raising tuition across the University of Maryland system" is pricing his constituents out of the school. Hug, who is Ehrlich's top fund-raiser, was approved in a 36-11 vote.

A number of bills await final action.

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