ANNAPOLIS – As the General Assembly’s 2001 session neared a close Monday night, one delegate’s fight to retain funding for firefighters across the state nearly cost the state critical money for mentally ill patients.
Early in the session, Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, drafted a rare bill – one generating, instead of spending, more than $30 million — with an eye toward funding upgrades for volunteer firefighters.
He would do it through a tax amnesty program, whereby delinquents who owe money to the state would be absolved of all penalties, provided they pay before Oct. 1.
However, as the session wore on, other legislators saw his bill for a purpose not foreseen at the beginning of the session – avoiding a potential lawsuit because of the governor’s lack of funding for mental health and the disabled.
And, unfortunately for Conway, his bill was the perfect panacea.
This, of course, put him in a bind. Although he wanted most of the money to go into a revolving fund for firefighters, he didn’t want to risk holding out at the expense of the mental health patients.
“No one wants to see folks out there who need assistance put in any more jeopardy than they’re already in,” Conway said. “It became my objective to maintain some of the purpose of the bill.”
However, he wasn’t willing to give in completely, and the final hours of the session turned into a game of chicken between the House and the Senate with real money for a real problem hanging in the balance.
“I was purposely holding on to the bill until I could get an assurance from the Senate that they would not try to rewrite the bill, and it worked,” said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany. “If they had not given us that assurance then the bill could have died.”
The Senate, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Calvert, were clearly anxious to see the bill. However, the House sat on the bill until it could get an assurance from the Senate it would keep the fire department funding.
“The main thing the Senate wanted was to fill the hole in funding for mental health. There was a real danger that if we didn’t fill that gap a lot of people would be out on the street,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Montgomery.
As the clock approached 11 p.m., the House was still holding the bill, waiting for the guarantee.
“There was some concern that they would not send it to us in time for us to cut some of the spending and send it back to them before the session ended,” Van Hollen said. “I think there was an effort by the House to say, `Senate, here it is take it or leave it.'”
In the end, the House did force the Senate to take a considerable portion of what Conway wanted. Conway managed to get $10 million of the $15 million he was holding out for.
“I said, `Needless to say I want the $15 million, but I don’t want to see the bill go down either,'” Conway said. “I can’t say I was really pleased with the response from the Senate.”
The first $38 million will go for mental health and education, leaving the next $10 million for firefighters.
Although firefighters said they wish they could have received the $15 million, they are happy with what they got. The Maryland State Firemen’s Association conducted a survey for all the volunteer fire stations across the state and found $150 million worth of needed renovations and equipment upgrades.
“We know that’s unrealistic and it won’t happen,” said Charles Riley, association spokesman. “But if we put in $10 million that’s going to be a big help.”