Md. General Assembly session ends

April 08, 1997


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County's legislative delegation had some hits, some misses - and a few foul tips - during this year's Maryland General Assembly session that ended at midnight.

The delegation won approval for the bulk of its legislative package, composed largely of noncontroversial bills that did such things as increase the pay for the county sheriff and increase the membership of the Board of Education.

Lawmakers ran into difficulty with some issues and found themselves embroiled in a contentious debate with the Washington County Commissioners.

"I'm very pleased. I think we fared very well," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who chairs the county's legislative delegation. "The minor things we didn't get ... we can address them next year."


As the session drew to a close Monday, the delegation obtained passage of two key pieces of legislation. One would pay $2.5 million in state funds to help with the city of Hagerstown's $9.96 million pension debt. The other that would set up a public-private corporation that would guide the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie when the Army closes the base next year.

The final flurry of action included approval of spending plans that will bring nearly $85 million in various forms of state aid to Washington County schools, parks, community centers and other projects.

"The session that looked like doom ended up with mostly success," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

The city's pension fund bailout was about half of what local lawmakers had sought. And the Fort Ritchie legislation did not give the new agency the ability to buy and sell bonds - something local officials had sought in order to finance the project.

"We had some tough issues," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, attributed some of the delegation's failures to crises, such as the pension legislation, that erupted after the session started.

"When you look at some of the difficulties we had, it's things we took on once we got here and not things we had in the mill before we got here," McKee said.

One piece of legislation that gave the delegation no difficulty was a bill it pushed through the General Assembly last week that required the County Commissioners to restore collective bargaining rights to county employees. The move left some commissioners criticizing the delegation for getting involved in local issues.

"That just made life very difficult," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

The war of words between Hagerstown and Annapolis affected another bill - one that would have revamped the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau. Delegation members said they stopped pushing for the bill's passage in recent days after seeing there was enough movement in the county to ensure the transition would take place without legislation.

More importantly, lawmakers said, they grew concerned that the bill would have required additional spending by the County Commissioners.

"I guess it got to the point to where how much salt can you rub into an open wound?" McKee said of the relationship between the commissioners and the delegation.

Another piece of legislation that ended up in a committee drawer was a bill that would have made minor changes to the county's tip jar gambling law. Legislative leaders refused to allow the bill- or any gambling bill - to move forward out of concern it could be amended to expand gambling in other parts of the state.

Some lawmakers said the demise of the gambling bill was an indication that the legislature's long-standing rule of local courtesy - under which lawmakers are rarely opposed when they seek legislation designed for their home districts - is losing ground.

"Local courtesy seems to be a thing of the past, and that is kind of sad," said Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington.

Local lawmakers found themselves spending much of the session involved in a variety of broader, statewide issues. Donoghue was successful in pushing through a health care package.

"Personally, this is one of the best sessions I ever had. I think we addressed a lot of health care issues that really had to be addressed," Donoghue said.

Poole had hoped to get a bill passed that would have started an apprenticeship program to teach young Marylanders the construction trades. The program made it through the House but died in a Senate committee amid concerns that the price tag could have been as much as $1 million, but Poole said progress was made.

"I think we're in a position where we can get it funded next year," he said.

McKee said the bill he regrets losing was an attempt to protect crime victims from being sued in many cases. He plans to give it another shot next year.

For much of the session, McKee worked on a House plan to cut the state income tax, putting in long hours poring over financial statements and revenue estimates. In the end, the House agreed to accept the Senate's 10 percent cut over five years.

"I wouldn't say we did it all for nothing. It's just the way it works down here," McKee said.

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