A closely divided Maryland House of Delegates passed legislation yesterday that would allow women to get emergency contraception, including the so-called morning-after pill, directly from a pharmacist without having to see a doctor.

The vote was 71 to 66. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Proponents said the bill would help prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions by making emergency contraceptives more readily available.

The legislation specifies that only pharmacists who have pre-established relationships with doctors could dispense emergency contraception, and it would require the state board that regulates the medical profession to oversee the new practice.

Opponents argued that pharmacists who may not know a woman's medical history should not be handing out prescriptions without a doctor's approval. Antiabortion forces were particularly incensed that the bill would allow minors to obtain emergency contraception without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

"This opens up teenage promiscuity," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore). "We are going further and further into the wilderness with regards to the morality of our children."

Citing statistics that place Maryland 13th in the nation in teenage pregnancy rates, Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) retorted: "Sexual activity among teenagers is here, and it's going to stay. I'd like to make sure they're not going to get pregnant in the meantime while we are all teaching them not to be sexually active."

The morning-after pill is a high dosage of the birth control pill taken to prevent pregnancy. It differs from mifepristone, also known as RU-486, which is taken when pregnancy has occurred and is used to induce abortion.

Tax, Fee Increases Advance

The Senate budget committee yesterday gave tentative approval to a package of tax and fee increases, voting to raise corporate filing fees, temporarily raise the tax on corporate income and triple the state tax on cigars, pipe tobacco and other tobacco products besides cigarettes.

The committee also voted to eliminate tax credits for developers who rehabilitate historic properties, a program that has driven a small redevelopment boom in Baltimore.

With less than two weeks left before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn April 7, budget leaders are scrambling to close a revenue shortfall projected to top $2 billion by June 2004.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has proposed to plug the hole with spending cuts, one-time accounting maneuvers, an increase in corporate filing fees and an increase in the state property tax. While Ehrlich is also pushing to legalize slot machines, the current version of the slots bill would produce very little revenue in time to help with the budget gap.

Last week, the House approved a budget plan that includes deeper spending cuts and higher taxes on businesses, including measures to close a variety of "corporate loopholes."

The Senate budget committee rejected a House proposal to increase corporate filing fees from $100 a year to a maximum of $20,000, choosing to cap fees at $250 across the board. To make up the lost revenue, the Senate panel proposes to increase the tax on corporate income from 7 percent to 7.7 percent for one year. The state tax on non-cigarette tobacco products, now 15 percent of the wholesale price, would go to 45 percent.

Extending Bias Protection

The House yesterday approved a measure that would prohibit religious groups doing business with the state from discriminating against potential employees on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill, which passed 76 to 53, now moves to the Senate.

Supporters said the measure would extend to state contractors civil rights laws that now apply to private employers. Maryland Catholic Conference lobbyist Jeff Caruso argued that it would force the church to hire homosexuals or people who "promote same-sex marriage" at a time when Ehrlich is proposing to expand public aid to faith-based organizations.