The Maryland General Assembly, ending an intense six-year lobbying effort, tonight passed a bill that will end the annual $186,000 property tax break provided to Bethesda's all-male Burning Tree Club.
The House of Delegates gave final approval to the measure on a 79-to-29 vote, with little discussion. The measure, having already received Senate approval, now goes to Gov. Harry Hughes for his signature -- a stark change from its fate in previous years, when it died in committee or after parliamentary maneuvers by opponents.
Sen. Stewart Bainum (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the measures over the years, was ebullient. "Burning Tree has a simple choice now: Either they start paying their taxes, like the rest of us have to do, or they start admitting women," he said. "No longer will women have to subsidize a club which they can't be members of."
The closest the bill came to approval in previous years was 1983, when the measure passed both the House and Senate, only to die in the closing minutes of the session when lawmakers appointed to work out differences between two versions of the bill stalled their meeting until the clock ran out.
Many of the same opponents of the Burning Tree bill had vowed as recently as Friday to continue their fight against the measure. But House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) intervened to help assure passage.
The bill will close a loophole that has existed in state tax law since 1974, when the General Assembly voted to end such breaks to all clubs that discriminate but exempted country clubs that ban women. Burning Tree, whose members include many of Washington's elite, is the only such club.
The action was one of a series of intense confrontations and surprising turnarounds as the assembly rushed to complete its business by the Monday adjournment.
Earlier in the day, the assembly forced Hughes into a difficult political quandary when it enacted a bill that would allow the return of slot machines to eight Eastern Shore counties. Hughes vetoed a virtually identical bill last year.
The 72-to-47 vote in the House of Delegates -- only one vote above the minimum needed for passage -- gave final approval to the slot machine measure, which the Senate passed weeks ago. It allows fraternal, religious and veterans clubs on the Eastern Shore -- except for Worcester County, home of the resort community of Ocean City -- to own and operate as many as five slot machines each, as long as half the proceeds from them go to charity.
Supporters viewed the measure as an aid to community organizations in need of a fund-raising tool, but Hughes and other opponents feared that the bill would lead to the statewide spread of the gambling devices, which were outlawed in 1963.
The approval puts Hughes, who is expected to announce his candidacy formally for the U.S. Senate soon, in the politically sensitive position of either having to reverse himself or again veto the bill. A veto would further antagonize Eastern Shore lawmakers, who have been alienated by a spate of recent decisions by the Hughes administration. Nevertheless, Hughes aides said today that the governor remains firm in his opposition to the measure.
The assembly also reaffirmed its Friday vote to move Maryland's presidential primary from May to March, an effort made in concert with Virginia and other Southern states seeking to enhance their influence in selecting presidential candidates.
Opponents of Maryland's participation in the so-called "Super Tuesday" primary failed in their effort to use a series of parliamentary maneuvers to overturn Friday's final vote in the House of Delegates. The measure now goes to Hughes, who is expected to sign it.
Other key action today took place in several conference committees where lawmakers from the House and Senate worked to resolve differences between the two houses on bills each has approved.
Among the most significant was a compromise reached by legislative leaders on a package of bills intended to curb rising insurance premiums by capping certain jury awards, one of the most controversial issues of the session. The key decision made by the conference committee was a vote to cap all jury awards for noneconomic losses in personal injury cases at $350,000.
The House gave final approval to a portion of the package, but the Senate's consideration was temporarily held up by a hastily organized filibuster led by Sen. Clarence Mitchell III (D-Baltimore).
Mitchell said he opposed the package because "it's bad enough that we considered a bill that rapes, robs and pillages the victims of this state, and now we come back with a bill that sentences them to death."
But after allowing Mitchell to hold the floor for two hours, the Senate voted to cut off debate and approved the bulk of the package.
House and Senate conferees also reached agreement on $44 million worth of differences in the state's capital budget, spreading more of the $220 million in public works projects throughout the state.
But the House and Senate remained far apart on a number of issues, including bills to beef up education aid to local schools. Despite lengthy secret negotiations on the education bill among Cardin, Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) and several of the conferees, "It just doesn't look good at this point," said a dejected Cardin.
The enactment of the slot machine bill was perhaps the most emotional development of the day. It came despite a frantic last-minute lobbying effort by members of Hughes' executive staff.
Nevertheless, Eastern Shore lawmakers counteracted lobbying by Hughes' aides with an emotional appeal to their colleagues to support them in a year in which they have suffered many legislative defeats.
"We feel it's a good bill that has many built-in safeguards. We'd like to be able to go home this year and tell our people we were able to accomplish at least that," said Del. William Horne (D-Eastern Shore).
Hughes won a partial victory on insurance today as legislative leaders from the House and Senate, after weeks of escalating barbs, dropped their rhetoric and reached a compromise that includes many of the concepts Hughes advocated.
They agreed to cap noneconomic losses, or so-called pain and suffering, in all personal injury cases. They also agreed on legislation making it more difficult to bring a lawsuit against a doctor by requiring evidence to be presented before a suit is filed.
The conference committee overturned the position favored by the Senate, which wanted more far-reaching changes in the law but wanted them to apply only to lawsuits against doctors.
Still, the committee's decisions -- which must now be adopted by both houses, a prospect that seemed likely -- provoked a stinging rebuke from representatives of the Maryland Trial Lawyers.
"I think it's a terrible injustice to the innocent victims of negligence," said John Sellinger, a vice president of the Trial Lawyers Association, which had opposed the changes.
But doctors who were among the most vocal in pushing the reforms called the package a welcome first step. "I think it's going to send a message to the courts. Hopefully some of these ridiculous awards will come into line," said Dr. Donald T. Lewers, president-elect of the state medical society.
Finally, the continuing tug of war between the House and Senate over the future of a proposed sports authority, which would be empowered to decide whether to build a facility to replace Baltimore's aging Memorial Stadium, was apparently resolved.
The Senate approved a House-Senate compromise on a 30-to-16 vote. The measure now goes to the House.
The stadium issue has become a point of heated political debate since two separate sports commissions made conflicting recommendations on where a new facility should be built.
A third, less vocal study group recommended against any new stadium being built, and it was a legislator representing the third group who forced the General Assembly to accept language requiring legislative approval before a new stadium can be built.
House members, who have favored a broader version of the law, said tonight that it is important to get an authority established so that the state will not be affected by pending federal tax reform legislation that would outlaw the use of the tax-exempt revenue bonds needed to fund a new stadium.
"Why should we jeopardize some of the other issues still pending in this legislature for something we can live with?" said Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore).