A far-reaching measure to deregulate Maryland's banking industry, which swept through the Senate over a week ago, was greeted with skepticism in the House today as opponents subjected it to a barrage of hostile questions and motions designed to stall it.
House leaders said that the bill, pushed by Gov. Harry Hughes, the banking industry and key members of the legislature, could come up a few votes short of the 71 needed for passage because of growing concern that the bill gives too much to the banks.
The measure, designed to make Maryland as competitive in the banking world as deregulated Delaware and Virginia, would allow banks and other credit institutions, such as Sears and Hechts, to charge a variety of new fees, including a membership fee on credit cards.
It would also allow banks to charge variable interest rates on consumer loans, would give lenders the option of eliminating a 25-day interest-free period for those making credit card purchases, and would ease restrictions on banks in cases of repossessions. Banking lobbyists had called the measure a "jobs bill" designed to improve the economic climate.
"It's a lousy bill," said Del. Constance A. Morella (R-Montgomery) as she listened to debate today on amendments to it. "It's not a probusiness bill; it's a probank bill. It's wide open." Morella, who voted last year for a bank-sponsored measure increasing the state's interest ceiling to 24 percent, opposes the Hughes-sponsored bill.
House Majority Leader Donald B. Robertson spent most of today trying to tally votes for passage. "It's a big bill dealing with an important subject matter and they don't feel comfortable with it. We've known it's iffy for a while," he said.
"I think people are reading that there's too much of a giveaway in the thing," said Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., one of the floor leaders on the bill. Taylor held an open telephone line throughout today's debate to Hughes administration officials who had helped draft the bill.
Opponents of the bill, primarily Prince George's and Montgomery county and Baltimore legislators, said that they will try hard to kill the bill when it comes up for final approval, probably tomorrow.
"There's a group of legislators who think the bill stinks," said Del. Michael Gordon (D-Montgomery), who helped organize today's effort to pick apart the bill with dozens of questions. "We're trying to make sure everyone knows exactly what this bill will do when they vote for it."
As of today, House leaders said that fewer than 60 delegates were willing to say they would vote for the measure, with as many as 40 or more saying they were unsure.
Throughout the debate, House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, who helped draft some "consumer amendments" into the bill, had his lieutenants patrolling the floor and the House lounge to pick up votes and hold onto others.
Working off a nine page list of questions, the opponents flooded the floor leader of the bill, Economic Matters Committee Chairman Frederick Rummage, with dozens of questions about current state laws, Delaware laws, interest rates and the intricacies of the bill.
Sitting in the balcony above Rummage were chief lobbyists for the Maryland Bankers Association, Choice credit cards and other financial institutions, and key members of Hughes staff.
"This is a way to get around the 24 percent interest ceiling," said Del. Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George's) of the membership, billing and transfer fees permitted for the first time by this bill. "All these fees should be included under the interest ceiling."