The Maryland House and Senate approved separate measures today that would allow the state to grant amnesty to tax delinquents in a one-time program to begin later this year.
The legislative action adds Maryland to a growing list of states that have discovered they can raise millions of dollars quickly by allowing tax delinquents to repay back taxes over a limited period of time without fear of penalty.
In Maryland, more than $80 million in back taxes are outstanding, but officials estimate the state could recover at least $8 million during a 60-day amnesty period scheduled for next winter.
Although both chambers agree on the need for the amnesty program, they part company over how the tax revenue should be used. Differences will go to a conference committee of the two houses.
The bill sponsored in the House by Del. Mary H. Boergers (D-Montgomery) would earmark 60 percent of the money for local jurisdictions to help offset the loss of federal revenue-sharing funds that were discontinued this year.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Decatur Trotter (D-Prince George's), contains no such provision. It passed today with no debate on a 43-to-4 vote.
But in the House, legislators who oppose the revenue-sharing provision failed to strip it from the bill after two days of vigorous floor debate.
Del. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel) argued against committing the state to doling out to local jurisdictions revenues that could be used to finance state programs. "We may not have the cash in hand . . . to put the savings and loan crisis behind us," he warned. "The State of Maryland has problems of its own right now. I don't see how we can give that money away."
The bill passed the House by a vote of 86 to 45 on the strength of pleas from its sponsors, who argued that localities also need more funds for programs.
"Our subdivisions should not be the ones to pay for the S&L crisis," said Boergers. "Everyone should have to."
In other action today -- which reached its high point with a visit from the Naval Academy basketball team and 6-foot-11-inch center David Robinson -- the House Judiciary Committee continued its disagreement with the Senate over how best to address rising insurance rates.
The House panel voted today to limit some injury lawsuit awards -- for noneconomic or so-called "pain and suffering" -- to $425,000.
The panel had debated whether the state should limit all damage awards, including compensation for such economic hardship as medical bills and job loss, or just noneconomic damages.
Clouding the debate were questions over whether the limits would have any effect on insurance rates. Most members of the panel, the majority of whom are lawyers, argued that making changes in the judicial system, such as imposing limits, would do little to affect rates. They said they are convinced that the nation's current insurance crisis has been caused by years of unsound pricing and investment practices by insurance companies.
"Whether it's a crisis induced by the insurance companies or not, I think they're the main part of it," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery). Nevertheless, Owens proposed a sweeping $1 million limit on all damage awards in all personal injury lawsuits, saying, "I have problems with a cap, period, but if that's the only way we can solve the insurance problem I guess we'll have to do it."
But after nearly an hour of debate and several weeks of private discussions, the panel bypassed the recommendation of its powerful chairman and voted to limit only the noneconomic awards.
The move puts the House panel at odds with the Senate, which has voted to limit only pain and suffering awards at $350,000, but only in cases involving medical malpractice. Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), who heads a subcommitee that reviewed the insurance package, said the House version would be difficult to pass. "I think it's an overreaction," he said.
Both houses have been considering bills aimed at curbing rising rates by making lawsuits more difficult to bring and less lucrative for those seeking claims. But the two bodies have disagreed over how far such controversial restrictions should go, and whether they should apply to all lawsuits or just those affecting doctors.