- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

ANNAPOLIS Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to increase the subsidy for mass transit by reducing the share of operating costs that commuters pay to use bus, subway and light rail.

The goal is to expand transit services by relaxing the amount of funding required from fares by raising the limit on how much the state can chip in.

Under the current formula, the state is required to pay 50 percent of costs or make up the difference between operating costs and revenues whichever is less.

The Democratic governor's proposal, announced Thursday, would increase the state's liability to 60 percent.

Washington area transit services which include Metro bus and rail, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties' local bus services already recover 53 percent of their costs through fares.

But Baltimore-area transit services only recover 46 percent of their costs.

Baltimore bus fares now at $1.35 would have to be increased to $1.70 to meet the 50 percent share, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

"That would have a destructive effect in Baltimore, where the median household income for transit riders is $28,000," said Len Foxwell, manager of Washington Area Transit Services for the Maryland Transit Authority.

Delegate Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat, said solid support of Washington- and Baltimore-area legislators should overcome opposition from fiscal conservatives and rural lawmakers who argue mass transit is not a cost-effective use of transportation dollars.

Mr. Franchot, chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, said Mr. Glendening's move could help draw support for a proposal by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany Democrat, to subsidize commuter air service to Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Maryland representatives of cellular-phone companies are fighting a bill banning use in cars, and say cell phones are needed in vehicles to report accidents and other emergencies.

Drivers caught using a cellular phone in the car could be fined up to $500 under legislation sponsored by Delegate John S. Arnick, Baltimore County Democrat.

"No question in the world that the use of a handheld telephone aids in distraction and limits a driver's ability to operate a vehicle," Mr. Arnick testified Wednesday before the House Committee on Commerce and Government Matters.

Citing national statistics gathered by insurance companies, Mr. Arnick said the number of fatal auto accidents related to use of a handheld phone rose from seven in 1991 to 57 in 1997.

Studies show approximately 85 percent of cell-phone users make calls at least occasionally while driving, according to a legislative analysis.

Nine countries prohibit the use of phones while driving, as do several U.S. counties. Similar bills are pending in 20 state legislatures across the country.

But cell-phone company representatives said allowing drivers to use phones while operating vehicles keeps highways safer.

Across the country, drivers make about 100,000 calls a day reporting traffic emergencies to police or highway agencies, said Cary B. Hinton, a lobbyist for Sprint PCS. He urged lawmakers to amend the bill to make such calls legal.

Susan Perkins Wichmann, manager of government affairs for Cellular One, said cellular customers who commute use their phones as time-management tools.

Other witnesses disputed a correlation between cell-phone use and auto accidents.

"There is no credible evidence that cellular-phone use is any more distracting than any other activity that is done in the car," said Kathleen A. Kittrick, a lobbyist for AT&T.;

The bill's opponents said they strongly advocate educating cell-phone users about safety rules to follow while driving. They said also that they have met with cell-phone manufacturers to encourage them to make more hands-free devices available.

Two lawmakers want to increase the amount of money returned to the working poor under the state's earned income-tax credit program.

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Wednesday she will introduce legislation to refund more money to low-income families under a formula based on their federal tax return.

"In a time when obviously there's so much money, the people who need it the most should benefit," said Mrs. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, also wants to send more money to the working poor, though her proposal is more modest than Mrs. Hixson's.

Under Mrs. Hixson's plan, a family of four earning the poverty-level income of $16,700 could see its refund increase from $188 to $1,211, according to estimates prepared for the delegate by Montgomery County officials.

Under the state's formula, which considers family size, income and other factors, Maryland gives low-wage families a credit that reduces or eliminates their state tax bill.

A second credit, added two years ago, allows the lowest-income taxpayers to receive a cash payment from the state if their credit is more than the taxes owed.

The refundable credit is 12.5 percent of the taxpayer's federal credit this year and is scheduled to be increased to 15 percent next year.

Mrs. Hoffman wants to make the credit 15 percent this year, while Mrs. Hixson wants to increase it to 50 percent.

Religious and business groups and advocates for the poor turned out Wednesday to show their support for Mrs. Hixson's ambitious proposal, which would cost the state $173 million in the current tax year.

House Republicans said they would consider supporting an increase in the credit.

The Glendening administration wants the Maryland legislature to provide state-subsidized health coverage for more than 19,000 children in working families.

The proposal backed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany Democrat, and Senate leaders seeks to build on a 2-year-old program that insures 63,000 children and pregnant women.

Under the legislation, which the Senate Finance Committee considered Wednesday, the state would extend coverage beginning in July 2001 to thousands of families earning between $33,000 and $50,000 at an annual cost to the state of about $7 million.

The measure would allow the state to pay a worker's share of the premiums for employer-provided insurance, something only three other states do.

Everyone enrolled in the Children and Families Health Care Program is covered by managed care organizations that contract directly with the state.

The proposed expansion would cost about $30 million a year. The federal government would provide about $13 million, with the state contributing $7 million. The rest would come from premiums paid by the families covered.

Under the bill, thousands of families newly enrolled in the program would pay premiums ranging from $37 to $46 per month, which would bring in about $10 million.

"There's overwhelming support for expanding coverage to children," said Debbie I. Chang, deputy health secretary. "It's just a question of how to do it."

The only significant opposition to the bill Thursday came from anti-abortion advocates, who said expanding coverage of pregnant women would lead to more state-funded abortions. Richard Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said, "[The bill] is a vehicle that would greatly increase abortions."

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