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Legislative clock is ticking

April 05, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

ANNAPOLIS - It happens nearly every year in the General Assembly, so why should this one be any different?

For all of the talk of trying to get things done quicker than before, there's little more than a week left in the annual 90-day session and there is still much left on the legislative plate.

Tax cuts, Pfiesteria, a health care program for children of working poor families and legislation aimed at helping the state's dairy farmers will need to be passed, or defeated, by midnight on April 13.

And it could get wild. Agreements over many of the issues, such as the rural-vs.-urban contrast on how to address the Pfiesteria problem, could lead some raucous debate on the House and Senate floors.

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Lawmakers might have gotten a preview of things to come on Friday, when the House of Delegates was the scene of an emotional fight over funding for Prince George's County schools. That debate ended with one upset legislator renouncing his membership in the Democratic Party.

"I think you're going to have some real fights out here," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

Several of the issues still to be decided include:




* Tax cuts. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders have vowed to cut taxes in this election year, with the state in excellent fiscal health. There just isn't a consensus yet on how that should be done.

"That's the one thing that's hanging out there," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a member of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

One method is to accelerate the five-year, 10 percent income tax cut approved last year, but it has yet to be decided how much faster that cut should be phased in.

There is also a push to lower the state's share of the property tax. That plan was originally attacked as being disproportionately beneficial to wealthy property owners, but it a revised proposal would help poorer families.

Whatever is worked out in the final week, lawmakers are certain they will be able to return to their constituents with a tax cut in hand.

"There's going to be some type of tax reduction," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington. McKee and Poole are both members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals primarily with tax issues.

* Milk. Legislation that would place Maryland in a compact with other states that sets minimum prices paid to dairy farmers for drinking milk was considered dead when a Senate committee rejected the bill last month.

But it came back to life last week, led by some arm-twisting from Glendening, and now faces a critical hearing before the same Senate panel this week. Supporters said they feel they have enough votes this time to get the committee to sign off on the bill and send it to the Senate floor for a vote.

* Pfiesteria. While many farmers look to a milk legislation with hope, they see concern in the push to pass regulations aimed at stopping a reappearance of the fish-killing microbe that appeared in the tributaries of the lower Chesapeake Bay last summer.

That's because farm runoff has been targeted by many as a contributor to the Pfiesteria problem.

The House version of the Pfiesteria bill gives farmers more time to implement mandatory runoff plans than a Senate version does. The penalties also vary in the two versions.

A conference committee is trying to work out differences.

* Children's health. Lawmakers are eager to take advantage of $47 million in federal funds for a program that would provide immnizatons, physical exams and other health care services to children of working poor families.

The program, which would have the state putting up $29 million from its own coffers, could help 60,000 children statewide.

But while a Senate version of the plan would be a true expansion of Medicaid, with no co-payments, the House approach leans more on private insurers and seeks donations to offset the state's cost.

Like Pfiesteria, a conference committee will have to work out the differences.

* Gambling. The only significant piece of Washington County legislation left to be decided is passage of two bills that would amend the county's tip jar gambling regulations.

One bill removes the current June 1, 1999, expiration date from the tip jar law. The other bill makes several changes, but its most important amendment would require that fraternal clubs make all of their required charitable giving, raised from tip jar games, through the county Gaming Commission.

The bills were passed by the House of Delegates last month and await a hearing this Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he spoke for about an hour last week with Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, who chairs the Senate committee, to pitch his case for the bills.

"I think we're in good shape," Donoghue said later.

County lawmakers won't have to spend the week worrying too much about their share of state pork being handed out. Both of their requests for bond funding for local projects, totaling $275,000, were approved by the Senate and appear headed for passage in the House.

And lawmakers were able to fight off an attempt this year to delay $5.3 million in funding for a new District Court building in downtown Hagerstown.

"I think the county is looking real good this year," Poole said.

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