A House committee today set up a major confrontation with the Senate after rejecting the Senate version of a controversial insurance bill, one of the key issues of the legislative session.
Calling parts of the bill "patently unfair," "pernicious" and "contradictory," the House Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly to reject key parts of Senate legislation that is the cornerstone of this year's effort to curb escalating insurance premiums for doctors and other professionals. The controversial effort by state leaders aims to make lawsuits more difficult to bring and less lucrative, in part by capping money damages.
The Senate version would limit these restrictions to medical malpractice cases but the House committee today voted that any such restrictions should be imposed on all types of personal injury lawsuits.
The House panel's action on insurance was one of a range of issues -- including education aid, housing assistance and amnesty for tax evaders -- in which the House and Senate are headed for conflict with less than two weeks left in this year's session.
Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, chastised his House colleagues over today's insurance vote. "What they're trying to do is kill the bill," Miller said.
He added, "If we come out of this session without adopting this legislation, it'll be a blemish on all of us; certainly it'll be a blemish on the trial lawyers, the majority of which compose the House Judiciary Committee . . . . Hopefully they'll vote the interests of their constituents and not their pocketbooks."
Among a handful of measures on which both chambers seem to be mainly in agreement are the state's $8.2 billion budget, which passed the Senate on a 40-to-3 vote tonight after about $34 million was cut from expenditures proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes, and a measure to mandate the use of seat belts. Both the House and Senate have now passed versions of these bills.
Senate and House versions of the seat belt bill are so similar that legislative leaders are confident of final approval. The House and Senate must agree on final versions of each other's bills before they can be sent to the governor to be signed into law.
Legislative leaders said the number of conflicts remaining between the House and Senate is not unusual. But they said that lawmakers are under more pressure as the session nears a close next month because election-year enthusiasm resulted in the introduction of 300 more bills than last year.
Today's vote on the insurance bill, which legislative leaders have called among the most important of the session, sets the stage for another potential split between the 141-member House and the 47-member Senate.
The bill, part of a package originally submitted by Hughes, is designed to cut rising insurance rates. Other parts of the package would strengthen peer review procedures for doctors, cap damage awards against municipalities, and stiffen requirements for filing lawsuits against doctors.
After considering the package early this session, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee decided to limit most changes to medical malpractice cases, arguing in part that the present system is unfair to doctors and that doctors warrant special protection because of their unique service to society. The Senate panel also said it was uncertain whether the changes would actually reduce insurance rates and opted to limit the changes in order to study the results.
But the House Judiciary Committee today, on a vote of 14 to 7, rejected that approach, saying it is unfair to tell victims of one type of injury that they can recover their entire damages while refusing that option to others. "A leg's a leg," said Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "If you're going to put caps on damage awards , you ought to do it across the board."
The House panel also rejected Senate language that would encourage judges to award periodic payments of money damages instead of a lump sum, and that would allow a defendant to reveal at trial any compensation a victim already has received as a result of the injury, such as from health insurance.
Bills on which the two bodies differ include:
* Tax amnesty: The House is reviewing a version that would distribute to local governments 60 percent of any collections under the bill, which establishes a period in which delinquent taxpayers can pay without prosecution. The Senate version omits that provision, and efforts to strip it from the House version failed today. Education aid:
* The House has passed a six-year, $335 million plan that increases state aid to education under a formula adopted two years ago. The Senate has adopted a one-year boost to the aid progam and its leaders vow not to accept the more expensive program.
Some of the tensions between the two bodies were reflected by Del. Wendell Phillips (D-Baltimore), a minister. He won applause from the House late Monday when he opened a new legislative day with this prayer: "Dear Lord. We're tired. We're getting on each other's nerves so I know we're getting on Your nerves. Give us patience. Amen."