The Maryland General Assembly, once the compliant deregulator of state-chartered savings and loan associations, today unanimously enacted tough new oversight laws and operating restrictions to prevent another crisis in the still-troubled thrift industry.
Amid muted warnings by some delegates and senators that the S&L reform legislation did not go far enough, the House of Delegates and state Senate bowed to election-year reality to approve the measure in less than two hours. The measure now goes to the governor, who is expected to sign it.
"We have many, many miles to travel on this issue," said state Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's), whose district includes thousands of depositors of the defunct Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda, which is slated to be reopened by Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh next month.
Green bluntly warned his colleagues that the state government was making a mistake to continue insuring dozens of small savings and loans, while other senators and delegates took issue with provisions in the bill that would allow thrift associations to make far-flung real estate investments.
Other legislators complained that there were too many loopholes in a provision requiring pubic officials and private persons to disclose any unusual S&L withdrawals they may have made last spring before the industry's collapse.
Still, the overall thrust of the legislation to create a powerful savings and loan czar in state government and put an end to the once free-wheeling practices of many savings associations persuaded all but 16 of the 188 lawmakers to vote for the bill. The 16 were either absent or not voting.
Among those not voting for the bill were Michael R. Gordon, Patricia R. Sher and Judith C. Toth, all Democrats from Montgomery County, and Francis J. Santangelo Sr. and Sylvania W. Woods Jr., Democrats from Prince George's County.
"I'm voting for this because there is no alternative," said Del. Constance A. Morella (R-Montgomery), who argued for a more stringent rule on the disclosure of withdrawals.
Under the terms of the bill, the director of the state Division of Savings and Loan Associations would have authority over thrift operations and dismissal of employes and directors. The bill would also restrict many of the practices that led to the current crisis, such as insider loans, and would set up criminal penalties for violations of the regulations.
Passage of the new savings and loan regulations caps an extraordinary period in the love-hate relationship between the Maryland legislature and the state's thrift industry. Relations between the two sides were cool in the 1960s, when an S&L crisis sent politicians to jail, prompting the General Assembly to establish thrift regulations and a system of state-backed deposit insurance. But they warmed again 20 years later, when the industry came here to beg for regulatory relief from high interest rates.
In the early 1980s, as a wave of deregulation swept financial industries at the national level, a responsive General Assembly granted broad new investment rights to home-grown savings and loans -- and helped sow the seeds for the industry's collapse last May.
Wilbur D. Preston Jr., the special counsel who investigated that legislative history, said in an exhaustive report on the S&L crisis that state lawmakers "consistently enacted legislation created by industry-dominated boards and often bowed to the influence of special interest groups" from the industry.
Today, with tens of thousands of voters unable to gain full access to millions of dollars in deposits, the General Assembly sought to make belated amends by passing new thrift regulations, several legislators said.
"The Preston report made some of these people feel guilty for not being more involved years ago," said Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore), who deposited $10,000 in Old Court Savings & Loan in January 1985, four months before the giant Baltimore thrift collapsed, triggering the state crisis. Its deposits are still frozen.
"Folks here had the opinion that we had to do something," Anderson added.
"The implication was we were caving in to the industry," said Sher, a member of the House Economic Matters Committee that satisfied nearly all the desires of the S&L industry several years ago.
"I don't see this bill today as all that vital," said Sher, who did not vote. "Remember, Preston said we have a lot of good legislation on the books. Our problem was that we had inept bureaucrats lying to us all the time about the problems."
The savings and loan crisis and the memory of its prelude in Annapolis cast a pall over this General Assembly.
In the past seven months, legislators were asked to approve the payment of millions of dollars in cash and the controversial transfer of state transportation funds to offset the enormous cost of the crisis.
In such a climate, legislators passed a measure that had both practical new regulations and the symbolism of an alert General Assembly doing its job.
"This was a problem that developed on our watch, so the perception was as important as the new restrictions," said Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), who created a special select committee to grapple with the legislation.
"To have failed to pass this bill would have hurt the credibility of the General Assembly."