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Democrats, Governor Deadlocked

Lawmakers Agree, But HMO Tax Spurs Veto Vow

By John Wagner and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page B01

Democratic leaders of the Maryland General Assembly struck a hard-fought deal on medical malpractice legislation last night but drew an immediate veto pledge from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., all but ensuring that the state's first special legislative session in a decade would end in a bitter partisan stalemate.

Both the Senate and House of Delegates planned pre-dawn votes on the legislation, which was stitched together from dueling bills passed by the two chambers in the session's first two days. The compromise bill contained a tax on HMOs -- a measure Ehrlich opposes -- to help offset soaring malpractice insurance bills that doctors say are driving them under.


House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), surrounded by other Democratic delegates, speaks to reporters after the House passed a medical malpractice bill during a special session in Annapolis. For the governor to veto the measure "would defy all logic," Busch said. (Gail Burton -- AP)

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Ehrlich (R) said last night that the compromise measure also included too few of the long-term legal remedies he has sought to hold down doctors' insurance rates.

"It's light years from where we need to be," Ehrlich said. "I'll veto it at my convenience."

He must act within six days from the date the legislature presents him the bill, or it would become law without his signature.

Democratic lawmakers involved in brokering the compromise pledged to seek an override of Ehrlich's veto, arguing that they had produced balanced legislation that provides immediate relief to doctors and an array of long-range solutions aimed at limiting the high cost of malpractice litigation, which has been blamed for rising insurance rates.

Lawmakers said that the bill would keep doctors' insurance rate increases to about 5 percent next year, compared to an average 33 percent increase facing those insured by the state's largest carrier.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said a veto by Ehrlich would "defy all logic" and raise questions about the governor's ability to get anything done in Annapolis.

"This is even more troubling than the slots issue," Busch said, referring to the governor's two-year effort, thus far unsuccessful, to persuade the legislature to expand legalized gambling. "This is an issue where the governor had the support of both houses to make this happen. If the governor would have had any flexibility . . . he might have been successful."

The legislature has convened for a special session 40 times in the past 100 years. Legislative researchers told the Associated Press that if this one ends with an Ehrlich veto, it would be the first that failed to produce a law.

The session, which Ehrlich called despite having no firm deal with legislative leaders, opened Tuesday with discord among Democrats, who control both chambers. The Senate approved legislation that contained far fewer legal changes than a House bill, which more closely tracked proposals made by Ehrlich to curb damages available to patients for lost wages, medical costs and pain and suffering.

After negotiating informally through the day yesterday, about a dozen lawmakers huddled in a small conference room last night and agreed on a number of compromises.

The House, for example, had sought to lower an existing cap of about $1.6 million on damages for pain and suffering in wrongful death cases to $650,000. The Senate was willing to lower the cap to $975,000. They settled on $812,500.

Busch said the House and Senate worked together in a way he hadn't experienced in some time. "There was no blood," he said. "The negotiations went very smoothly."


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