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April 19, 2005

General Assembly Wrap-Up – 2005 (Part Two)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The State Constitution says that the General Assembly will meet for 90 days, beginning with the second Tuesday in January through the second Tuesday in April. In that time, all of the people's business must be completed. The only real obligation is to produce a balanced budget bill; the rest is up to us.

Looking back, a great deal of very important legislation made it through the General Assembly this year. Reading the D.C. and Baltimore newspapers, one would be led to believe that the only thing we discussed all session was slot machines.

The fact is, I never believed, not even for a second, that we'd ever see a slot machine in Maryland, especially not in Frederick County.

Think about it for a minute. Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) has spent the last two years using his substantial power to control the House in denying Governor Robert Ehrlich his signature legislative initiative.

What possible sense would it make now for Delegate Busch to relent, to give a major political victory to his nemesis? One can argue that Senate President Mike Miller's (D., Calvert) message regarding how Speaker Busch's strategy will probably cost Democrat seats in the next election has taken hold, and that Mr. Busch had seen the light.

I never bought that idea. In fact, the whole discussion over a House slots bill smelled like garbage from the beginning. The Democrats who just happened to propose a slots alternative were all conservative delegates from districts sure to be targeted by Republicans.

It all just seemed too perfect; conservative Democrats who sponsor slots bills; a set of bills that are so different from earlier versions, including the current Senate version, that any thought of a compromise was just not realistic.

So slots died again, and this death is different than the deaths that occurred in the last two sessions. I cannot imagine how a bill can pass prior to the next election. Once again, the toughest issue the legislature has to decide will instead be decided by the voters.

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of the voters, we've burdened voters with some additional work for the 2006 election. We passed a constitutional amendment to require legislative approval of land sales, which were previously the purview of the Board of Public Works.

Environmental groups lobbied hard to overcome the anticipated objections of the Governor's office. They ran radio ads, newspaper ads, and cranked up the email and phone banks.

These efforts don't come cheap, just the radio ads alone had to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. In their favor, the environmental lobby is well-organized and sophisticated.

Unfortunately for them, they wasted their money. In a bit of a surprise, Governor Ehrlich made it clear to both the House and Senate Republican Caucus that he had no problem with the constitutional amendment bill.

I don't think he announced his support out of excitement over legislative intervention, or having his powers diminished in a hostile takeover. I suspect he looked ahead to 2006 and decided this was not a fight worth having in an election year.

* * * * * * * * * *

Health care was a positive highlight, as was the condition of the state budget. We're socking away $750 million in the Rainy Day Fund for next year, and conservative estimates calculate a $200 million General Fund surplus for next year.

In the area of health care, we extended basic health care to 250,000 Maryland residents who don't have access to the system currently. The effort was bi-partisan, and the results are historic in scope.

Prescription drugs will be cheaper under the state’s Medicaid program, and we'll be looking into a bulk-purchasing program and establishing a repository for unopened, unused bulk drugs. Thousands of drugs, worth millions of dollars, are discarded annually when the person who had the drugs prescribed no longer needs them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Economic development saw some progress this year, with a new high tech tax credit and a tax credit aimed at the film making industry. Unfortunately, this session will go down in Maryland history as one of the worst sessions for business and industry.

The Wal-Mart bill passed, although it will surely be vetoed. This bill aims to tax corporations that employ more than 10,000 workers. If they don't spend at least 8% of their payroll on employee health benefits, then they would pay that amount to the state medical assistance program.

Giant Foods supplied the lobbying power, along with organized labor. Wal-Mart is easy to pick on, they're a large company, with huge assets, and most of their workers are part time.

At the same time, the General Assembly passed a bill to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour. Again, organized labor put all of their focus and resources behind this bill.

Conversely, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the Maryland Businesses for Responsive Government made killing these two initiatives their signature effort for the 2005 Session.

Arguments against the Wal-Mart bill are compelling. No other state has enacted a law to penalize a business based on how much they spend on health care. Wal-Mart had planned to construct a major distribution facility in southern Maryland.

They anticipated 1,000 jobs being created in an area of the state where even 100 jobs are desperately needed. Now that the legislature has targeted Wal-Mart for a new punitive tax, will anyone be surprised when they relocate this facility several miles south in Virginia? Marylanders will simply drive south to work for Wal-Mart in a state where jobs matter more than they do here.

* * * * * * * * * *

How about a Weldon version of Winners and Losers?

Winner: Frederick County Commissioners – Sen. David Brinkley's tax cap bill didn't make it, so the commissioners get to be the heroes when they lower the county property tax rate. If they fail to do so, I predict they'll be BIG LOSERS!

Loser (not really): Senator Brinkley made a high-profile fight to pass his tax cap. He fought harder than anyone else in the delegation, and everyone who watches knows what he tried to do. His stature will continue to improve; we all know he's going places!

Winner: Governor Robert Ehrlich saw 13 of his 19 legislative initiatives pass the General Assembly. He fought a Democrat majority in the Senate, the House, and the editorial boards of The (Baltimore) Sun, Gazette, and Washington Post.

Loser: Business lobbying efforts failed to influence voting majorities in both chambers. Governor Ehrlich has made an issue of the effectiveness of these groups, and the Wal-Mart and minimum wage bill proved his point.

Winner: Teen drivers will be facing more time behind the wheel before restrictions are lifted: controls over the number of non-family riders they're allowed, and strict penalties for breaking existing laws. Maryland roads will be safer.

Loser: Any retired veteran of military service was slapped in the face by partisan politics. Governor Ehrlich offered bill to provide a major tax exemption to military retirees. The House stripped officers from the bill, allowing it to apply to enlisted veterans. Senate President Mike Miller killed that bill, but promised veterans that the bill would be his top priority next year. Speaker Busch joined in on the skunk chorus, but Governor Ehrlich will surely spread the word about this chump maneuver this summer.

Winner: Uninsured Maryland residents will benefit from a great legislative year. The progress this year builds on the last two years. House Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman John Hurson (D., Montgomery) proved his ability to push a positive agenda once again.

Loser: Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan is slowly being pushed out of the limelight by the O'Malley machine. Baltimore Mayor Martin O' Malley's public relations machine is sophisticated and calculated. It has to be since he needs to divert voter’s attention away from dangerous Baltimore streets to Bob Ehrlich. Poor Doug Duncan gets lost in the noise.

Winner: Senate President Mike Miller has cemented his reputation for being on the right side of an issue at the right time. He viciously attacked Governor Ehrlich for firing Democrats and hiring Republicans, a reverse of the trait he and his cronies had mastered in 36 years of Democrat control of the governor's office. On the other hand, Senator Miller knew that Speaker Busch's slots strategy would cost votes in ’06, so he ridiculed the Speaker as ineffective.

Loser: The spirit of camaraderie and friendship that marked previous sessions was erased during this term. I love to hear the old-timers and legends tell the stories of policy debates in the Loew’s Hotel bar into the wee hours of the morning. Now those discussions quickly turn ugly and defensive. Too bad, because I'm sure the old way was better.

Winner: Delegate Don Dwyer has created his own little religious movement in Annapolis. He facilitated a few rallies on the question of defending marriage, and was even able to spur African-American church groups to join the cause.

Finally, all five million Maryland residents are winners, because the legislature has left town for the year. When we convene next year, we'll be entering an election cycle. God help us all!

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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