Lawmakers reflect on 2005 General Assembly

April 17, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - There's a marked change on State Circle on the day after "sine die," the last day of the Maryland General Assembly session.

A handful of legislators, aides or bureaucrats can be seen in casual clothes, strolling leisurely between the state house and the legislative office buildings.

Cartons are delivered for packing up the files that need to go back to their districts, and many of the senators and delegates straggle in mid-morning, having slept late to make up for the session-ending activities of the night before.


In stark contrast to the flurry of the previous week, everyone takes a deep breath in contemplation of battles won and lost during the past 90 days.

Waving to a colleague crossing Lawyers Mall on Tuesday, Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, asked him whether all of his bills had passed.

"All the ones that were going to pass," he replied.

In a legislative session marked as much for partisan squabbling as for the issues considered, the Washington County Delegation managed to win approval of every local bill introduced - even if the most significant local bill - the Washington County Growth Management Act of 2005 - barely squeaked through with minutes left in Monday's final House session.

Another issue weighty to Washington County didn't fare so well.

Despite the frequent presence of Hagerstown surgeon Karl Riggle, president of Save Our Doctors, Protect Our Patients, in the corridors of the state house this year, attempts to further reform the state's medical malpractice laws crashed and burned.

Nearly three dozen bills were sponsored by members of both parties, dealing with everything from "Good Samaritan" immunity from lawsuits for medical staff performing in emergency situations to allowing incremental payments of awards in malpractice suits.

Malpractice issue

But the only bill approved was a corrective measure that fixed technical problems with the controversial bill produced during a contentious special session last December. That bill included some safeguards for patients and set up a stop-loss fund to subsidize double-digit increases in malpractice insurance premiums. The money will come from a new 2 percent tax on health management organizations.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich had vetoed the original bill, the Maryland Patients' Access to Quality Health Care Act of 2004, saying it didn't go far enough to resolve the legal tangles leading to the high malpractice insurance rates. The General Assembly voted to override the veto in January.

Ehrlich said this week that his administration would continue to seek reforms that would rein in malpractice insurance premiums, but made no promises about results so long as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opposed them.

"The president of the Senate has said there will be no tort reform in a 'blue' state, and he has the votes," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich contended that some health-care organizations that supported the original stop-loss bill had bailed out of the issue.

"To the extent that some people got paid, they left the fight," he said. "But the debate is important, the debate is real. The subsidy bill didn't fix anything."

The governor said his administration would push for more reforms next year and continue the debate through the 2006 election campaign.

Legalization of slot machine gambling, supported by most members of the Washington County Delegation, seemed for a moment to be inching forward as the House of Delegates approved a bill for the first time. The Senate has approved slots bills for the past two years.

But this year, the gulf between what was included in the House bill and what was in the Senate bill proved too wide to bridge. As the session began in January, Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, predicted that House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots opponent, would feel pressured to let the House at least vote on a bill, but that it might not get through both chambers. And that's exactly what happened.

Despite some last-minute lobbying by Ehrlich and persistent rumors that a slots deal was in the works, no compromise was reached.

In addition to the passage of local bills, Washington County benefited from a bill to add several new judges to the Maryland judiciary. The county will be allotted one more Circuit Court judge next year.

The county also is slated to get a total of $6.1 million for school construction projects in fiscal year 2006.

Project funding

Delegation members won bond loans for several local projects, including:

· $75,000 for the Community Free Clinic.

· $30,000 for Discovery Station.

· $150,000 for a stadium at North Hagerstown High School.

· $75,000 for Aspiring to Serve for the new homeless shelter on West Franklin Street in Hagerstown.

· $30,000 for King Farm Park in Boonsboro.

Requested funding for Holly Place, an assisted living facility on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown, still is pending.

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