- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The senator who sponsored a bill that would limit the governor’s power to cut the state budget withdrew his proposal yesterday before a final vote because of lack of support.

“I didn’t have the 29 votes,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery Democrat and vice chairman the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee. “It was just the same 27 [votes] I had before.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Hogan attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to give the General Assembly more influence on state spending. The bill did not receive the necessary three-fifths majority and was defeated 25-20, with two lawmakers not voting.

Democrats have been trying to curb the budget autonomy of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor in the state in more than 30 years.

The Maryland governorship has maintained complete control over the state budget since 1914.

The General Assembly cannot increase items in the governor’s budget or move money from one program to the other. The amendment would have allowed the House and Senate to do both, but would have prohibited them from increasing the level of spending proposed by the governor. It also would have given the governor veto power over changes made to his budget.

A companion bill has passed the House of Delegates and also is unlikely to become law.

The Senate is poised to approve legislation that would lay the foundation for the state to import Canadian prescription drugs for uninsured Marylanders and state employees.

However, the proposal is tied to getting the permission of federal health officials, who so far have opposed the practice.

With 13 days remaining in the 2004 General Assembly session, Democratic and Republican senators gave the bill preliminary approval with a 37-10 vote. If passed, the bill will go to the House for consideration.

“It’s a fine line between paying your fair share and being a chump,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican.

He said senior residents in his district do not mind paying fair prices for high-quality U.S. prescriptions, but they now “feel like they’re being taken advantage of.”

Customers of Internet pharmacies in Canada are saving up to 50 percent on their medications.

The bill, brought by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s Democrat, calls for Maryland health officials to ask the federal Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a mail-order prescription-drug program. So far, no other states have been given such a waiver.

“They’re trying to force the issue,” said state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini. “The strategy is — the more kinds of these pressures you apply, the pharmaceutical companies will behave in a socially responsible way.”

Importing drugs into the U.S. is illegal but is becoming a common practice over the Internet. The FDA and the U.S. pharmaceuticals industry are against the practice, saying they cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs. Supporters argue the industry’s goal is just to keep prices high.

Maryland’s Health Department could lose the $235 million a year it receives from the federal government for Medicaid if the state implements a program without FDA’s permission, state health officials say.

Senators who support the legislation said the state has a responsibility to start a mail-order pharmacy as soon as federal health officials give permission.

The new Medicare prescription-drug law mandated that President Bush’s administration gives Congress a report by Dec. 1 on whether and how drugs could be safely imported.

“I don’t want to be first in line, if I cannot guarantee the safety of my constituents,” said Mr. Hogan, who voted against the legislation. “I ask that we not do anything rash and foolish.”

Those eligible for the Canadian Mail Order Plan would be employees and retirees on the state insurance plan, Medicaid recipients, people without health insurance or prescription-drug coverage, and low-income Marylanders who qualify for state assistance with medical bills and prescription drugs.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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