The Maryland General Assembly today quietly ended one of the legislature's longest running disputes when the Senate passed legislation permitting individuals to write so-called "living wills" that would direct physicians to end life-sustaining techniques in the event of incurable illness or injury.

The legislation by Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery), already adopted by the House, passed the Senate on a 40-to-5 vote today with only a fraction of the emotional debate the issue has sparked in the past. A minor amendment was adopted today, which the House is expected to accept.

In other action, House and Senate conferees on the capital budget began deliberations by agreeing on several items, including $1.8 million to build the Hyattsville Justice Center in Prince George's. The two houses also moved forward on bills concerning child support and limited divestiture of state money from firms doing business in South Africa. And Prince George's senators, after long delays, agreed to support a measure that would expand the county's Board of Election Supervisors.

Supporters of the so-called "living wills" measure gratefully credited Maryland's Catholic Conference, which helped craft the bill in a form acceptable to Catholic leaders, with the success of the measure this year. The conference's opposition was among the factors that doomed the bill to failure in the past.

"I'm going to vote for it . . . . I've come to the decision prayerfully, but I still have concerns," said Sen. Frank Kelly (D-Baltimore County).

Among its provisions, the bill requires two physicians to determine that death is imminent and that the procedures will only "artificially prolong the process of dying." The statement requires that food, water, medication and pain relief be administered if possible.

In other action today, the Senate also sent back to the House a beefed up measure to curtail state investments in firms operating in South Africa. A House panel developed a compromise bill that placed a two-year moratorium on new investments of state pension money in certain firms doing business in that nation but exempted many companies who are signatories to an agreement to promote "progressive" racial policies. The Senate bill provides for a one-year moratorium on all new investments in firms doing business in South Africa. The two chambers must now confer on the matter.

The Senate also strengthened a bill to improve collections of overdue child support and sent that back to the House panel, which had added amendments that many supporters said weakened the bill. Both sides must confer on the bill, which establishes a federally mandated procedure for imposing automatic deductions on the wages of people who owe child support.