ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Republicans are angling to force a House vote on a bill to raise salaries for community care providers, using an arcane rule to bring the measure out of committee.
But Democrats, who accused the Republicans of exploiting the issue for political gain, may have beaten them to the punch. The bill’s chief sponsor said Tuesday that she was told the bill would be brought up for a vote today in the Appropriations Committee, where it has been stalled for more than six weeks.
The bill would raise pay for community providers who help individuals with developmental disabilities to bring it up to the same level as salaries of workers in state residential facilities. It would not take effect until fiscal 2003, and has languished in Appropriations largely because it lacked funding for fiscal 2002.
Republicans said the bill, with 127 House co-sponsors, should be “flying through” the legislature, not stalled in committee. They began circulating a petition this week to bring the bill out of committee under House Rule 42, which says a bill held in committee for more than 20 days can be brought out for a floor vote if 47 of 141 House members agree.
All 35 House Republicans have signed the petition, and GOP leaders said Tuesday they were confident they would get enough Democratic signers to bring the bill to the floor. House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, said Republicans should be able to get 35 Democrats to sign the petition, “so it will be a truly bipartisan effort.”
But some House Democrats questioned the support by the fiscally conservative Republicans for a bill that would cost an estimated $51.6 million in fiscal 2003 and an additional $94 million by 2006.
The petition drive seems like an attempt to make the Democrats “look bad,” said Delegate Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery. Heller is a co-sponsor of the bill but said he would not sign the GOP petition to force it out of committee.
“If you don’t support the committee structure you’re going to get chaos,” Heller said.
But Delegate Joan B. Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, the proposal’s chief sponsor, said the petition drive may be moot.
Pitkin said she was told late Tuesday that Gov. Parris N. Glendening had agreed in a meeting with House leaders to fund the bill in fiscal 2002. She said Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, called her late Tuesday to tell her that he would amend the bill to reflect the 2002 funding and that he would bring it up for a committee vote today.
Rawlings could not be reached to comment Tuesday evening on Pitkin’s statement. A Glendening spokesman confirmed that the governor and House leaders negotiated Tuesday on funding for several programs, including the community providers bill, but he denied that the governor had committed to any amount during that meeting.
“There is no agreement on any figure at the moment,” said Mike Morrill, Glendening’s spokesman.
Republican leaders could not be reached for comment after Tuesday afternoon’s meeting between Glendening and the House leadership. But earlier in the day, they defended their efforts to breathe life back into the bill, which was unanimously approved Monday in the Senate.
“I don’t think it’s all that liberal,” to support the salary bill, said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard. “It’s something that has been neglected by the governor.”
“It’s not fiscally irresponsible to say workers should get paid a decent wage,” Flanagan said.
Heller was not convinced.
“This is a campaign tactic,” he said. “Not a legislative tactic. They want Democrats to look bad.”
While Republicans insisted they have more noble motives, they did not disagree that there is a political element to their maneuver.
“For somebody to call something political in Annapolis,” Flanagan said, “is ridiculous.”