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April 18, 2005

General Assembly Wrap-Up - 2005 (Part One)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Once again, midnight brought confetti and balloons cascading down from the gallery in the historic House Chamber. High school-age pages are given the task of hanging over the balcony, dumping bags of paper scraps and balloons on Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel), signaling the end of another legislative session.

The Speaker seemed happy, but I couldn't tell if he was truly happy or just relieved that it was finally over. I've mentioned how partisan the atmosphere has become, and 2005 set a new record for ugly, antagonistic relationships.

I wanted to share my reflections of Sine Die, since the pressure and tension are unique, even in the crazy world of the state legislature. Today I'll try to replicate the insanity. Tomorrow I'll focus on what we did for 90 days, what we didn't do, and some observations you'll only get here.

I started my "Sine Die" day in the Health and Government Operations Committee room, the last time we'll ever meet there. This summer, the Lowe House Office Building will undergo major change, as the Casper Taylor addition is completed.

The new addition will primarily benefit the public, the leadership, and the lobbyists. New, larger committee rooms mean more comfortable seating for the public. I guess more comfortable seats are meant to appease the public which often waits hours for bill hearings.

We had a voting session, there were a few bills that we had failed to act on that would have died in committee had we not cast those last few votes. One of the bills was a Carroll County bill that was very important to Sen. Larry Haines.

He had asked Committee Chairman John Hurson (D., Montgomery) to bring the bill to a vote. Some House committee chairmen might not honor a relatively minor request like that. I've talked before about how fair John is, and he showed it again for Senator Haines.

Our first Floor session started around 11:30 A.M., with a list of over 160 third reader (final House votes) bills. At the same time, the Senate was meeting across the lobby.

I was very interested in the work of the Senate. My relative caregiver bill was on second reading on Saturday, and was scheduled for third reading on Sine Die. Having a bill on third reading in either Chamber on this particular day is stressful, but having your very first solely sponsored bill on third reading on Sine Die is even worse.

Hanging over the normal stress of the day was a rumored Senate filibuster over that infamous embryonic stem cell research bill. Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert) had threatened to bring the bill to the Floor at some point on Sine Die, testing the will of Senate Republicans.

One lesson I've learned in Annapolis is that it makes no sense to test people's will, because they will inevitably rise to that test. There is nothing worse than a "manhood" test because policy implications are lost to personal interests.

If Senator Miller had been true to his word, and brought the stem cell bill to the Senate floor, the GOP would have led a filibuster that would have bottled up hundreds of bills, as the stem cell supporters in the Senate could not muster the needed cloture vote.

Here's another lesson I've learned. There are a number of legislators who do not believe they were sent to Annapolis to get bills passed. Some perceive their role is to take action to limit government spending. Some believe passionately that they are there to change the moral tone and direction. Still others see it as their mission to get more members of their party elected.

Passion and commitment are important tools for an effective legislator. In my opinion, compromise (when possible) and negotiation are also necessary tools.

We were in and out of the Chamber a total of four times, although we adjourned and convened in place several more times. Except for my bill, and two of Del. Joe Bartlett's bills (his first bills to get out of both Chambers as a delegate), all of the Frederick County delegation bills had either been killed in committee or had passed both Chambers prior to Sine Die.

Unfortunately, the centerpiece for the Washington County delegation was the Growth Management Act of 2005. This very complex bill would provide several mechanisms to the county commissioners for dealing with the impacts of residential growth.

The bill came in late, had some problems that resulted in lengthy negotiating sessions, and even caused some problems for the Way and Means Committee.

As of the second Sine Die day session, the bill still hadn't passed. Del. Chris Shank (R., Washington), was working the phones like a man possessed. He was pleading, cajoling, and doing everything else he could to move the bill along.

Fast forward to the last 30 minutes of the 420th General Assembly. The Washington County bill was on the calendar but was listed behind a few controversial bills. One of them, a bill to change how the Baltimore County Board of Education is to be elected, was very divisive within the Baltimore County delegation.

An argument between Baltimore County Republicans and Democrats started as soon as the conference committee report was announced. One GOP delegate, Pat McDonough, led a several minute inquiry. Remember, the clock is running out.

Speaker Busch agreed to a suggestion that the Baltimore County delegation adjourn to the lounge, hoping for some compromise that would allow the bill to move forward. The bill was special ordered to later to allow the delegation a little more time. The clock now showed less than 15 minutes remaining.

When they returned without agreement, the Speaker seemed unwilling to allow the bill to come up, and Delegate McDonough appeared intent on running out the clock to kill the bill. He got up on every single bill, asking questions of the committee or its sponsor.

One of his colleagues called around to other Republicans, asking for help in slowing things down. As soon as Chris Shank figured out what they were doing, he started shouting to other members to keep quiet. Our local bill was still awaiting action.

Delegate McDonough kept jumping up, grabbing his microphone and demanding the floor. Speaker Busch tired of his antics, and finally had Delegate McDonough's (and those on both sides of his seat) turned off. All of the delegates with bills still awaiting action let out a collective cheer, and we dealt with several bills before midnight, including the Washington County Growth Management Act!

Amid balloons, confetti, and flashbulbs, Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D., Montgomery) rose and said: "Mr. Speaker, I move the House stand adjourned, Sine Die!"

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