The all-male bastion known as the Burning Tree Club won a 11th hour reprieve last night from legislation that would have stripped it of a tax break for discriminating against women.
Although both the House and Senate had passed the bill, which would have taken away the $152,000 tax exemption the Bethesda club gets for providing open space in urbanized Montgomery County, the legislation died when three House opponents, named to a conference committee to iron out a technical error in the measure, stalled until the midnight end of the 1983 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
The Burning Tree bill provided the major excitement in the final day of the 90-day session, during which legislators approved a small increase in unemployment benefits, ordered drivers to pass eye examinations when renewing licenses and approved money for a new jail for Prince George's County. (See story on Page B1.)
Time ran out on frantic efforts of supporters to reach a compromise on the bill, which a club officer testified would turn Burning Tree, which has a $12,000 initiation fee and $1,700 annual dues, into a rich man's club.
Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor, and other supporters blamed the defeat on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel), who they contend stacked the conference with three determined opponents, and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), for allowing Athey to get away with it.
Cardin, responding to complaints of unfairness, ordered the House conferees back into session as time was running out, but Del. Paul E. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who had been working for the bill's defeat for weeks, conducted a mini-filibuster in the meeting as the clock in the nearby Senate chamber edged to midnight.
"Why are you here?" Senate conferee Dennis F. Rasmussen (D-Baltimore County) asked Weissengoff, who had scuttled the original conference 90 minutes earlier.
"I'm here because Ben (Cardin) told me to be here," said the cigar-smoking Weisengoff, who reportedly did not oppose the bill so much on its merits--an earlier amendment had narrowed its application only to Burning Tree--but because his political pride had been hurt when it was approved over his opposition in the Ways and Means Committee.
When the other Senate conferees, Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) and Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) attempted to call for a final vote in the conference, at 11:57 p.m., Weisengoff snapped, 'Hold on, take it easy, I'm talking."
During the first meeting of the conferees, Weisengoff said he and his two House colleagues would not approve the technical changes because "we shouldn't take away a state tax credit."
"It's a shame the General Assembly is unwilling to terminate subsidized discrimination in the state," Bainum said early today. "I don't understand why the speaker allowed the appointment of such a lopsided conference committee."
Some opposition to the bill stemmed from the fear that although it would apply only to Montgomery County this year, it might be changed in the future to apply statewide, and wipe out similar tax breaks in the districts of many members.
As the House conferees stalled away the night, an angry Bainum complained, "they aren't even being clever about it, they're being blatant. That's not a conference committee, it's an assassination squad."
On Saturday, the Senate amended the bill, which would have applied only in Montgomery County, to exclude charitable organizations, including the Elks, Moose and Masons.
That change forced the bill back to the House, where Weisengoff, the legislature's best-known player of old-fashioned power politics, had promised to kill it. Over the years, Weisengoff has openly expressed his disdain for what he ridicules as the "white hats" from Montgomery, who he thinks are trying to impose their liberal views on the entire state.
Monday morning, with a little help from his friends, Weisengoff swung into action.
For a moment last night, Cardin considered overruling Athey and appointing three new House conferees. When Athey returned from a meeting with the speaker at which that idea was discussed, Weisengoff greeted him with the threat, "you do this to me (agree to new conferees) and you'll never do anything to me again."
The flaw in the amendment occurred when the Senate Finance Committee put in the word "and" where it should have used "or."
When Montgomery delegates discovered the error, they immediately asked the Ways and Means Committee to appoint a conference committee to fix it and returned the corrected bill to the two houses for final passage.
A conference committee is appointed when a bill has passed both houses in differing versions. Three members from each body are appointed to work out a compromise and send it to the full House and Senate for approval.
When the motion was made for a conference committee, Ways and Means chairman Athey said, "Okay, we'll appoint Delegate Weisengoff, Delegate (William) Burgess and Delegate (Wade) Kach."
The four Montgomery delegates on the committee gasped. "Mr. Chairman, aren't you going to appoint someone from Montgomery? This is a local bill," said Del. Ida G. Ruben, chairman of the Montgomery delegation.
"We're just going to clean up the amendment," said Weisengoff.
"Yeah, that's all it is," added Athey.
"I just looked up and saw three responsible delegates," Athey said of his appointments. "Did Paul say he was going to kill the bill? I guess I should read the newspapers more often."
Bainum, who has worked much of the last half of the session in behalf of the bill, asked Speaker Cardin to intervene when he heard the names of the conferees.
At that point, Bainum charged onto the podium to talk to Cardin. The two men engaged in a heated discussion, with Bainum leaving in a huff.
"I told him that he was going to be responsible for killing this bill if he didn't change the conference committee," Bainum said. "That made him angry but he knows the bill's as good as dead now. This is the kind of issue he should be taking the lead on, and he's doing just the opposite."
Cardin said he declined to intervene because he and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg had agreed not to get involved in the appointments. "It's the chairman's call," he said sharply.