April 6, 2011

Blog Update: Discrimination bill dies; collective bargaining for home health workers revived

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Blind people in the Senate gallery wait for the debate on a discrimination bill that never came.

A fiercely debated bill allowing lawsuits in state courts over discrimination in stores, restaurants and airports was sent back to a Senate committee Wednesday, effectively killing the bill, as about 20 blind people who had lobbied for the measure sat disappointed in the gallery.

Shortly afterward, an O’Malley administration bill to allow collective bargaining and union service fees for state-paid home health workers which had died once in the Senate Finance Committee was brought to the floor with the promise of strong opposition from Republican senators.

DISCRIMINATION: The discrimination lawsuit bill had generated prolonged debate over several days from senators concerned that it would foster predatory lawsuits by lawyers anxious to make buck over discrimination complaints.

Backers of the bill had said the concerns were unfounded, and the bill simply allowed people who believed they had suffered discrimination to bring the matter to state courts as they already can in federal courts.

Lobbyists for hotels, restaurants and other business groups had worked hard to kill the bill or water it down.

Sharon Maneki, legislative chairman of Maryland’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said, “It’s unfortunate that preventing discrimination becomes controversial.”

Melissa Riccobono, president of the state federation of the blind, said the bill was aimed at stores that did not accommodate blind people and any place available to the public that blind people couldn’t access.

Maneki, who had testified for the bill, said the measure was especially aimed at point-of-sale machines, kiosks and other devices that were difficult to use by the blind, such as ATM machines that don’t talk.

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING: The Senate Finance Committee had initially killed a bill granting collective bargaining rights and agency service fees to a union presenting home-health care workers March 16. But Tuesday, three votes switched on the 11-member committee, and it sent an amended bill now looking like the House version to the floor.

In an interview, Finance Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton said after the first committee vote, “I got a request from the administration not to send [the unfavorable report on the bill] to the floor.”

“They felt they had the votes,” Middleton said. The amended legislation permits the administration to negotiate a memorandum of understanding setting up a sliding scale for agency fees based on how much the state pays a caregiver.

“The governor leaned on people,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, a committee member. “You can’t make something this bad good.”

The home-health workers are represented by a local unit of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

“It’s such a blatant payback” for union support of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Pipkin said.

Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com