The Maryland General Assembly adjourned at midnight after adopting a $350,000 limit on certain jury awards in personal injury cases, then breaking down in bitter election-year conflict over programs to aid local schools and to grant amnesty to tax delinquents as a way to raise millions of dollars for state and local government programs.
In an acrimonious finish to an otherwise calm 90-day session, the assembly killed a proposal to grant tax delinquents a 60-day amnesty period only hours after dealing a similar blow to a $335 million local education aid proposal. Both died when House and Senate leaders could not resolve fundamental differences between bills adopted by each house.
Of the two disputes, the battle over the education bill was more bitter. The measure died after Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg refused even to meet with House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin to discuss Cardin's ambitious six-year plan. The legislature adopted instead a one-year injection of $14 million into local schools that sends $2.2 million to Prince George's and $580,000 to Montgomery.
The defeat of the larger education bill was a major blow for Cardin (D-Baltimore), who leaves the legislature this year to run for Congress and had hoped to leave the education program as the legacy of his 20-year career in the House of Delegates. It was also a sign of the rising influence of Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) after four years as leader of the once-lethargic state Senate.
"The power of the Senate is rising [and Steinberg] has never been more powerful," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).
Despite those setbacks, a legislature dominated in its opening days of an election-year session by the lingering savings and loans crisis had, by its end, written new regulations aimed at preventing similar problems in the future. The assembly also reached agreement on an array of difficult public policy issues: mandating the wearing of seat belts, enacting new housing programs for the poor and adopting strict new guidelines limiting development along the Chesapeake Bay.
Cardin highlighted those accomplishments, as well as others of the legislature's four-year term that ends this fall, in his adjournment remarks. "I know of no legislature that has accomplished quite so much in helping people," he said. He then accepted a top hat and congratulatory remarks from Hughes, himself set to leave Annapolis after eight years as governor.
As the assembly edged toward its midnight adjournment, the two houses had flared repeatedly into open conflict. The warfare eventually killed the tax amnesty proposal despite Gov. Harry Hughes' decision to take the rare step of summoning the contending parties to a meeting in his office.
At issue was whether any receipts from the program would go into the state treasury, as the Senate preferred, or be divided among local governments, as its author in the House, Del. Mary H. Boergers (D-Montgomery), and her House colleagues insisted. Boergers, locked in a fierce fight for a state Senate seat against incumbent Democrat S. Frank Shore, demanded that the Senate pass a version of the bill with her name on it as her price for accepting a compromise.
When the Senate refused, the Ways and Means Committee voted to stick to its version, and the programs died. "It's finished; we got kicked around too much," said Boergers.
"Egos seemed to have gotten in the way," said Hughes aide Benjamin Bialek, "Nobody wins; it's very, very unfortunate."
Throughout the day the General Assembly had given vent to this and other lingering animosities in a series of intense House-Senate conflicts that had left several major issues uresolved until the final hours.
One such conflict jeopardized a $5 million housing program intended to pay for indoor plumbing, lead paint removal and other housing renovations for poor Marylanders. A conference committee worked out a compromise that passed both houses just before midnight.
At issue were the terms of a new statewide housing code: the three Senate representatives pressed the Hughes administration position that any statewide code should have minimum standards, including such requirements as a serviceable roof, a floor other than dirt, and walls. But the three House conferees refused to budge from their view that local governments should set any standards.
The compromise calls for local governments to pass a code "in substantial compliance" with a state standard, but calls for state officials to allow "exceptions and variations to reflect geographic differences" throughout the state.
The final vote on insurance liability in the House of Delegates also came today. The measure's $350,000 limit resembles the attempts being made in several states to curb rising insurance costs by bringing down the cost of jury verdicts. Over the weekend, lawmakers adopted other parts of the Hughes administration's insurance package, including a measure to make lawsuits against doctors more difficult to file by requiring evidence to be presented in advance of a suit.
Mindful of the fall elections, lawmakers made sure most of their colleagues won a few victories to display to their constituents. In an effort to give something to their Eastern Shore colleagues, who suffered several defeats here, lawmakers passed legislation permitting the return of slot machines to charitable organizations in eight Eastern Shore counties. Hughes vetoed the legislation last year, however, and is expected to do so again.
Another election year bouquet went to Montgomery County lawmakers, when the assembly ended a six-year fight by voting to strip the exclusive, all-male Burning Tree Club of Bethesda of a lucrative property tax break.
Lawmakers also were pleased with what they did not do. For example, they avoided a bruising battle over abortion funding. Leaders on both sides of the issue agreed to support increased funding for family planning and prenatal care for low-income mothers.
And amid much public hoopla, lawmakers killed a bill that would have prohibited distributors from selling to minors records and tapes with obscene lyrics.
Apart from savings and loans, lawmakers agreed, one of the most complex and distracting problems the assembly faced was the escalating cost of liability insurance.
Faced with complaints from doctors, municipal officials, charter bus operators, day care providers and others that rising insurance costs wre forcing them out of business, Hughes and the legislature convened two task forces. Hughes distilled their findings into a package of proposals aimed at making lawsuits more difficult to bring and less lucrative for the plaintiff.
Some lawmakers advanced even more stringent proposals, ultimately unsuccessful, that would have limited attorneys' fees, limited all jury awards and decreased the number of years in which juveniles could file lawsuits on their own behalf.
Threaded through the debate over the proposals was confusion over whether these proposals would actually do anything to solve the rising cost of insurance, which consumer groups blamed on faulty insurance industry pricing practices and mismanagement.
In the end, a compromise package of measures passed that will limit only noneconomic awards. The measures included language requiring insurance companies to report certain information back to the state so next year's assembly can study the results of this year's action.
Maryland's persistent savings and loan crisis, which began last May with the collapse of Old Court Savings & Loan of Baltimore, served as the backdrop against which other issues were measured. Legislators exhausted by two special sessions last year found themselves confronting lingering financial and political problems associated with the thrift industry's problems.
As if they needed the reminder, special investigative counsel Wilbur D. Preston Jr. took the legislature to task on the very first day of the session for bowing to industry demands in the early 1980s and granting the new investment powers that by 1985 would ruin several large S&Ls.
Preston, reciting what he called "a history without heroes," charged all levels of state government with a complete failure to detect severe problems in Maryland's thrift industry. The General Assembly, Preston said, compounded the error by caving to industry requests for new and highly risky rights to make speculative real estate investments.
Within days of Preston's address, witness tables in legislative hearing rooms sprouted recording devices for the first time, not-so-gentle reminders from lawmakers who said they had been lied to about the health of the state's savings and loans.
Ultimately, the assembly enacted tough new oversight laws, creating a powerful savings and loan czar in state government, and restricted many of the practices that caused the crisis, such as insider loans.
There was another, less subtle, effect from the crisis, said several legislators. Attuned to the regulatory failure that contributed to the S&L crisis, House and Senate members went out of their way to be certain state agencies had sufficient manpower and resources to police Maryland's other financial industries.
"This was the year of regulation," said Del. Gary R. Alexander (D-Prince George's). Staff writers Tom Kenworthy, R.H. Melton and Tom Vesey contributed to this report.