Home Rule Victories

Measures Backed by House Panel

In recent years, Republicans on Capitol Hill have often overridden the wishes of District officials. But several GOP lawmakers broke with party leaders last week as a key House committee backed a plan that would allow the city to count ballots from last year's referendum on legalizing marijuana for certain medical purposes.

"What we are talking about here is the constitutional right to speak out and express an opinion," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.).

With six Republicans ultimately agreeing with Democrats, the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District also voted to allow the District to spend city money on a needle exchange program.

The two victories for home rule advocates came just before the panel approved the District's proposed $4.7 billion spending plan for fiscal 2000. The package includes a $300 million, five-year tax cut plan.

"We got two important pro-democracy votes here," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But it isn't over yet. Democrats said the medical marijuana and needle exchange amendments could still lose when the budget goes to the full House for approval.

The Senate already has passed a version of the D.C. budget that does not include bans on needle exchanges and the counting of ballots from the marijuana referendum.

Across the Region

Lorton Plans; Fish Kill

* It long has been a place for prisoners, but the 3,200-acre Lorton grounds may become a sanctuary for wildlife and a recreation destination. A plan that will get its first public hearing tomorrow proposes turning more than 2,500 acres into parkland and allowing for a residential neighborhood with as many as 1,500 homes.

The site of the federal prison complex in southeastern Fairfax County, set to close in 2001, is one of the region's largest parcels of land open for development. Proposals for the property must be adopted as an amendment to Fairfax County's land plan before it is submitted to the U.S. government.

* Two summers ago, outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida killed about 30,000 fish in the area near Virginia's lower Eastern Shore and the Pocomoke River.

Last week, as many as 500,000 fish turned up dead in a tidal creek that feeds the Pocomoke--this time, victims of too little oxygen in the water, biologists said.

The season's drought might have contributed to the largest fish kill around the Chesapeake Bay in at least a decade. Less rain spilling into creeks means saltier water, which spawns algae that suck oxygen out of the water. The heat also limits the water's ability to hold oxygen.

* Montgomery County's living-wage bill is nearly dead. A majority of County Council members now oppose legislation that would more than double the minimum wage for certain workers in the county. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) had warned council members that the measure threatened to make the county an unappealing place to do business by driving up labor costs.

* This spring, Michele Finn won $48,000 from Virginia lawmakers to pay for legal fees she ran up in her right-to-die dispute with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). Now, she has gone to court to stop her late husband's brother from collecting a $10,000 award from the state, saying that she needs the money to settle a court judgment against him in her favor.

Her attorney also is asking Virginia for more than $100,000. Finn says the original settlement wouldn't come close to covering her expenses in her legal battle against Gilmore, who went to court to keep Finn's severely brain-damaged husband alive. Two courts blocked Gilmore's attempted intervention, and Hugh Finn died in a Manassas nursing home in October.

* A Forestville man was charged with murder in the death of a man who was gunned down while walking his dog in Silver Spring, marking at least the third time this summer that a bystander has been killed.

Shawn Anthony Bowman, 32, allegedly had just stolen $2,200 from a Safeway store when he encountered Luis "Chocho" Sequeira, 47, and shot him three times, police said.

* Plans for replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge got a boost when area members of Congress introduced legislation to guarantee an additional $600 million for the $1.9 billion project. Still, the Clinton administration proposal could face a tough fight, especially in the House, where a transportation subcommittee chairman has said he will oppose anything beyond the $900 million previously promised.

* The world's largest producer of documentary films says it has made a discovery: Silver Spring is the place to be.

Discovery Communications deepened its commitment to the rebirth of the downtown area, signing a 15-year lease on a former Caldor store that will house the media company's editing center. Discovery already was planning to build a headquarters in the redevelopment district. As many as 1,800 employees could work at both sites when Discovery's move from Bethesda is complete in 2002.

* U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's sing-along at a Virginia judicial conference struck a bad chord with some lawyers.

Rehnquist's selection of "Dixie" upset lawyers who view the Old South anthem as an expression of fondness for plantation life and slavery. Some African American lawyers said they avoided the sing-along this year at the 4th Circuit Judicial Conference. Rehnquist declined to comment.

-- Phuong Ly

Region Bakes in Temperatures High and Dry

Drought Leading Agriculture Officials to Seek Disaster Declaration

With no immediate sign of relief from hot, dry weather, there's little that can be done for stunted crops and parched lawns.

But area officials are taking steps to help farmers and conserve water during the worst drought in decades.

For the third year in a row, agriculture officials in the region plan to seek a disaster declaration. If granted, it would make low-interest loans available to farmers in affected counties.

In Loudoun County, supervisors approved mandatory water-usage restrictions, becoming the first county in the Washington area to take such a step. The measures aren't yet needed elsewhere, but residents are still urged to conserve water, said officials of agencies that supply water to most of the Washington area.

"I have never seen anything like this, this sustained drought, in the 11 years I've been here," said Harold Kanarek, a Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman. "Usually there's some rain in May to make up for the dry summer, but this past May we had hardly a drop."

Desperately Seeking a Few Good Teachers

Many Area Schools Still Struggling to Fill Hundreds of Vacancies

They're offering signing bonuses and staging record numbers of job fairs, but area schools still need several hundred more teachers, less than seven weeks before students return.

Fairfax County has hired more than 800 new teachers, but needs nearly another 800. The District has 400 vacancies, down from more than 1,100 this spring. Prince George's County has hired about 700 of the 1,300 teachers it needs.

What's the problem? Officials blame a national teacher shortage--especially in hard-to-fill areas such as higher education and math--and tougher hiring standards. Also, the overall demand for teachers is growing, in part because parents across the country are lobbying for smaller class sizes.

School officials say they think they will have enough teachers in classrooms this fall, but union and parent leaders still are concerned.

"It's scary," said D.C. school board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large), who has two children in school. "I know they've been working very hard to try and get teachers here . . . . [but] if we don't, I at least want us to know what our next plan is."