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November 25, 2005

A 2006 Session Primer

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It's hard to believe that we're already talking about the legislative session. It seems like it was just yesterday when we were talking about Sine Die.

As much as I wish it weren't true, I'll be packing up and heading south to Annapolis in a little over a month.

This year looks to be more challenging than the last three years combined. The forces of opposition are at greater odds, and the stakes for a politician gearing up for re-election couldn't be higher.

Every state elected official will be running for re-election, from Gov. Robert Ehrlich down to yours truly. The question that influences every single action in Annapolis in 2006 will be whether Governor Ehrlich can get re-elected.

The dynamic is that if he can win his re-election next November, the transition of Maryland into a valid and competitive two-party state will be so far advanced that the Democratic Party leadership will not be able to stem the tide.

When you read all of the bad things that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan say about Governor Ehrlich and his administration, remember that they are carefully scripted to accomplish one primary goal: to stop the GOP from seizing the statewide electorate agenda. It is much less about Bob Ehrlich than it is stopping the shift of Maryland to a place where political diversity is practiced and celebrated.

So, within this political framework, the legislature has to try to debate and act on several thousand pieces of legislation. Many of these bills are either local courtesy or so logical and valid in purpose that they would normally shoot through committee and both chambers' approval.

Not this year, though. The Democratic leadership of the House and Senate - Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert) and Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) - will be exercising an unusual level of control. If you've followed these columns, you know what I mean.

The dominant voices for the Democratic Party will be the true liberal, anti-Ehrlich senators and delegates, while the most vocal defenders of the Ehrlich agenda will be those on the far right.

Lost in the cacophony are the moderates, the members of both chambers sent by voters of their districts more concerned with good policy choices than partisan ideology. I consider myself a part of that dying breed, and I do so proudly.

The policy debates will be interesting and varied. Slots will surely raise their flashing, blinking, dollar-generating heads again. Governor Ehrlich will once again make an argument for the infusion of Maryland cash that is currently going to West Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey (and soon to be at a location near us in Pennsylvania).

Gasoline prices appear to be a topic of discussion, or at least how the petroleum industry justifies record-setting profits amidst terrible natural disasters.

The right of government to seize private property for economic development will also be a battleground issue. Local governments (our towns and cities) will be fighting for the right to use this power, arguing that they don't abuse the power in Maryland, so the legislature shouldn't meddle.

Legislators, especially Republican legislators, will counter that any instance of government taking away the private property of one citizen for the economic advantage of another is unacceptable. I know of several bills being drafted to end the practice.

Tort reform, or placing controls and caps on lawsuits, will be another dividing line in the 2006 Session. We left it last year completely unresolved, in spite of the empty clamor of success from the Democratic majority.

Doctors are being reimbursed for their increased premiums, but only because HMO patients are paying higher premiums. The root cause, frivolous lawsuits, remains unchecked. The trial lawyers spend a ton of money protecting their ability to chase ambulances, so their legislative defenders will again protect their interests.

Voting reform will also divide the legislature along party lines. Democrats may try to push through an early primary (from September 2006 up to June or July of 2006) to give Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley enough time to raise money to run against Governor Ehrlich. If you're wondering why I dismissed Montgomery Doug Duncan, it's because the Democratic machine itself has already abandoned him.

In addition to forcing an early primary election, they also want to open up voting to anyone and everyone. Following the lead of National Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, the logic seems to be that the more marginal voters they can slip under the tent, the better their chances to regain power. Illegal immigrants will be a major focus, since if you can get them to vote, they'll likely vote for Democrats.

Speaking of division, same sex marriage will also be a hot topic. I expect a constitutional amendment defining marriage to be on the agenda, although it will take tricks and parliamentary maneuvers to get it to the floor for a vote.

Finally, the budget will create major fights among the special interests. Oddly, it will be the availability of money, not the lack of it, that causes the battle. Teachers are looking for a major pension reform bill, parents of school-age children are looking for $250M for school construction and renovation, and gaps in the new Medicare prescription drug program will need state dollars to fill in the holes.

I'm taking some body armor; I think I'll need it!

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