- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Worries over redistricting and a shortfall in Maryland's budget are likely to place business-related issues on the back burner this year.
The General Assembly begins its 2002 session tomorrow with a state budget expected to have a $520 million deficit.
This means Gov. Parris N. Glendening will not only have to refrain from a spending spree in his last session in office, but he also will have to cut back spending. The state may be forced to issue bonds to finish already started programs.
At stake is also the final phase of a 10 percent income-tax cut. The issue is politically dangerous because lawmakers don't want to upset their constituents in an election year.
"Because of the dominance of redistricting and the budget issue this will likely be a session where business issues are not at the forefront," said David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
Despite that, one of the big battles is expected to be over allowing Maryland's largest health insurer to become a profit-making business.
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the state's largest health insurer, has operated as a nonprofit organization since its conception during the 1930s. WellPoint Health Networks Inc., a California health insurance company, wants to buy it for $1.3 billion.
Allowing the acquisition would bring much-needed money to the state, as it will save it the tax exceptions CareFirst claims as a nonprofit. But many lawmakers oppose the deal, concerned that the move would make it more difficult for low-income residents to afford medical insurance.
Rising medical insurance costs are another issue for the Assembly this year.
"Premiums continue to rise at double-digit rates, and it's making it difficult for employers and employees to purchase coverage," said William Burns, spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which has not taken a stand on the CareFirst-WellPoint deal.
The heated debate over slot machines will be back this year.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard "Pete" Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, will reintroduce the bill, which would allow Maryland residents to decide whether slot machines should be legalized at the horse-racing tracks.
This year its luck may be better, as a growing number of lawmakers do not want Maryland to lose out on the flow of money raised in Delaware and West Virginia, where slots are allowed.
Another topic will be funding higher education for technology-related jobs.
"The biotechnology industry in particular has an insatiable appetite for M.D. and Ph.[D.] … and lab technicians and [two-year] degree holders from community colleges," Mr. Iannucci said. "The business community will be watching very carefully to make sure work force issues like this are funded and supported."
Maryland is home to the third-largest biotechnology industry in the country. Years of pouring money in drug-research startups began paying off in recent years, as the state produced biotechnology success stories like Human Genome Sciences and MedImmune.
The burgeoning biotech industry has spent years and billions of dollars, and the recession is making it difficult for companies to transition from research to product manufacturing. To help it raise necessary funds, the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development last year pushed for a bill allowing biotech companies to sell their debt to raise funds.
The bill failed. It is back this year, but its chances are not good, said Sheila Sprague, legislative analyst for the Montgomery County Office of Intergovernmental Relations.
"That would cost the state some money and at this point in time, with the state budget and revenue picture not bright and sunny, we might have a little difficulty," she said. "But we want to keep the idea in front of the legislature and maybe it will pass."

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