Changes in Maryland's divorce laws, including questions of waiting periods and division of property; sex discrimination in insurance coverage; fair pay for comparable jobs; and funding for shelters for battered women are among the issues before the General Assembly and Gov. Harry Hughes.
For the women who lobby for women in Annapolis, however, the biggest issue this year is the struggling economy and the threatened deterioration of services for the poor--from food stamps and day care to the availability of Medicaid-funded abortions.
"We've got to protect as many state programs as we can because of the disproportionate share of the poor who are women and children," said Del. Mary H. Boergers (D-Montgomery). That group, Boergers said, is being hardest hit at the federal level and the impact is trickling down to the state.
"The bottom line is still, from a state legislative perspective, the state budget," said Boergers, who was a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women before she was elected to the House of Delegates.
By agreement of the legislative leadership, the emotional issue of Medicaid-financed abortions will not be open for debate in the General Assembly until late March when the legislature begins its review of Hughes' fiscal 1984 budget. Hughes has proposed eliminating restrictive language approved by the legislature two years ago that limits cases in which Medicaid will pay for abortions.
Proposed changes in divorce laws, rejected by the legislature last year, are under consideration again this session.
For example, efforts have been renewed to reduce the three-year separation period required by law before a couple can be granted a contested divorce. Separate bills have been introduced, one of which reduces the separation period to 18 months, another to one year, and there is some consideration of a two-year separation period. There has been debate about whether the shorter time period allows enough time either for a couple to seriously consider a reconciliation or for the woman involved to get on her feet.
For women who are suddenly the single parent in a household, "a year is not enough time to get over the shock of finding herself in a very different situation than she was before," said Martha Wyatt, chairwoman of the Maryland Commission on Women, which opposes the one-year proposal. "It just takes a certain amount of time psychologically to let the air clear."
The women's caucus in the House of Delegates voted to oppose the 18-month reduction and has not acted on the one-year proposal. Caucus chairwoman Del. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) said "some women question whether a year is sufficient time to go through the trauma of a divorce and settle your differences."
The governor's Commission on Domestic Relations Laws, which supports the one-year separation time, has contended the longer separation period actually encourages adultery (by forcing a waiting period for spouses anxious to get on with their lives) and encourages some residents simply to go to the District or Virginia, where waiting periods are a year or less.
"We still think three years is an awfully long time," said the commission's head, Bethesda lawyer Beverly Anne Groner.
Previous efforts to reduce the three-year waiting time have been defeated in the General Asssembly. The reduction also has been consistently opposed by lobbyists for the Catholic Church.
Francis X. McIntyre, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said the value of the longer waiting period is "to preserve as much time as possible in important life decisions such as this one."
Groner's commission also has recommended the legislature eliminate a portion of the divorce law that says if a couple contemplating divorce has sexual intercourse, that act wipes out all accumulated separation time and also rules out any claim for divorce based on adultery. Groner believes this provision discourages any serious attempts at reconciliations and is used as a trap by some spouses.
Current law "puts a premium on continuing the feud between two people," Groner said, adding the state "has no place in the marriage bed."
Groner's commission remains at odds with both the women's commission and the women's caucus on how the courts should go about dividing up marital property between spouses.
In 1978, the legislature agreed that the wife, who is often not a wage-earner, had an interest in the marital property, even if it was in the husband's name. The 2-year-old law includes various criteria, such as the length of the marriage and the health of the parties, that the courts could use in deciding how to divide up property.
Women's commission chairwoman Wyatt said, however, a study of 16 extensive divorce decrees issued in state courts indicated judges were not following these guidelines.
As a result, the women's commission and the women's caucus support moves to pass legislation that would add to the law a guideline that stipulates the courts start their work on the presumption that the property should be divided on a 50-50 basis.
Groner's commission objects to the equal-split guideline, saying that in some cases a woman would be worse off than if the court were able to use its own discretion in dividing up property, based on a complete picture of the marital relationship.
Beyond the fundamental issues of home and children, women's commission chairwoman Wyatt said the issue of the 1980s for women and their advocates is "comparable worth," a new dimension to the concept of employment discrimination. It seeks to balance the pay scales for jobs often traditionally held by women, which, if not equal to higher-paying jobs held by men, are comparable in work, effort and responsiblity.
Hughes is expected to meet within a couple of weeks with his Commission on Compensation and Personnel Policy to consider whether the concept of "comparable worth" should be a matter of state policy and decide if a study should be made of the state's compensation scales.
Risselle Fleisher, general counsel to the state Human Relations Commission, said she expects strong opposition from the insurance industry to a bill that would require insurance premiums to be figured on the basis of age and not sex.
Fleisher and other supporters of the measure contend actuarial tables, which insurers rely on in calculating risks and setting premiums, are based on general conclusions about women as a group (they live longer and suffer more disabilities)--a practice that discriminates against individual applicants. One result, Fleisher said, is that disability policies are harder to get and more expensive for women than for men.
Ruben said she also has sponsored legislation this year that would require insurers to allow divorced women to remain in group policies that had covered them during marriage.
Ruben and other supporters of that measure contend insurers sometimes require those women to apply for insurance again as individuals, which not only deprives them of cheaper and more comprehensive group coverage but also makes insurance hard to get for older women who may have existing health problems at the time of their divorce.
A new alliance of women's groups, brought together by the women's commission last fall, is focusing on funding for shelters for battered spouses, rape crisis centers and programs for displaced homemakers (usually unemployed women in their late 30s) and homeless women.
The women's caucus is supporting legislation backed by the alliance that would increase the number of counties that add an extra charge ($5 to
5) to a marriage license to support shelters for battered spouses. Prince George's has such fees, Wyatt said.
The caucus also is supporting legislation that would give displaced homemakers an extra five points on the state test for placement in merit system jobs.
The caucus also favors legislation that would make it easier for women to get child-support services from their local governments and allow questioning of employers of absentee parents who have fallen behind in child support responsibilities.