ANNAPOLIS – Maryland business leaders said Friday that one of their few major losses in an otherwise “resounding session” is already coming back to hurt them.
A bill that makes it easier for the state to sue the tobacco industry, by changing liability laws, is already being eyed by lawyers eager to file a class-action suit against manufacturers of lead paint, said Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Champe McCulloch.
“It’s a camel’s nose situation,” McCulloch said. “If you start allowing that and taking away the rights of defendants — it doesn’t matter that you have a defendant you don’t like — it’s like, OK, who’s next?”
McCulloch said Peter Angelos’ law firm is already planning to go after the lead paint manufacturers. Angelos is also handling the state’s suit to recover health care costs from the tobacco industry for smoking-related illnesses.
But Angelos scoffed at the suggestion — even though he said the “lead paint industry deserves litigation.”
He accused McCulloch of fabricating the story to “support statements made by the chamber” that the bill would open the door to class-action suits against other industries.
“We have no hidden motive to use legislation recently passed … to go after lead paint manufacturers,” said Angelos.
The tobacco bill was one of the few losses for business in the 1998 General Assembly, which also killed a proposal for a sales-tax-free shopping week and a plan to speed up electric utility deregulation.
Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers’ Association said the business community enjoyed a good session “albeit with a less ambitious agenda.”
Saquella is worried about the impact of an interstate dairy compact that will let farmers set minimum prices for their milk and was disappointed that the “sales tax-free” week did not pass. But he is glad that lawmakers re-instituted legislation that lets retailers charge bad-check fees.
“I would say we were satisfied with the session,” Saquella said. “Our organization is dedicated to the preservation of the status quo. And this year we weren’t hurt by anything.”
Business leaders believe they were helped, in fact, by many bills:
* Maryland college-bound students who agree to study in high-tech fields and stay in the state to work after school will be helped by a new high-tech scholarship program.
* Workers who hurt themselves while they are drunk or on drugs on the job will have a harder time collecting workers compensation under a change in the law.
* Besides the 5 percent cut in the income tax, a personal property tax exemption for small businesses passed.
* A grievance procedure for managed health care providers was created.
* Comparative negligence legislation that passed will require a certificate of merit for lawsuits against design professionals.
Business leaders expect to be back next year to wrestle with utility deregulation, an issue that died in the final minutes of the session this year.
Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Finance Committee, added a timetable for deregulation at the last minute to a separate bill that the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. had been pushing for.
The BG&E bill would have created a holding company that utility officials say they need to give them the financial flexibility to prepare for competition. The timetable that Bromwell tacked on to it had already been approved by the utilities and the Public Service Commission.
“We’ve got to be business friendly,” said Bromwell of the need to get deregulation moving, adding that he hated to “sit and do nothing” while other states moved toward competition.
But both proposals died while the House and Senate wrangled over them as time ran out on the session.
McCulloch said everybody agrees that the state employees pension system needs to be changed, but that lawmakers rushed into a $150 million revamping of it.
“If you’re going to make a change in the pension system, you should do it right and carefully,” he said. “You don’t make a change like that in an election year.”
But overall, business leaders said they were pleased with their record in the 1998 session.
“In this four-year term, Maryland, from a standpoint of business climate, has turned an important corner,” said McCulloch.
“I’m a native Marylander and … with all the assets Maryland has, we ought to be in the very top rank of states attracting business. We really can be in the top if we maintain the momentum.”