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January 9, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 - Part 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Today isn't actually the night before the start of the 2006 General Assembly session; it's the night before the night before. Time to pull the cover off the Journal jalopy, tune up the engine, and polish the chrome.

Session begins Wednesday at 10 A.M. All of the regular pomp and ceremony will be accompanied by the fairly certain override of several of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's vetoes from last year.

This interim has been a little different than the last two. Major construction in the Lowe House Office Building restricted the ability of several committees to meet during the summer. My committee, Health and Government Operations (HGO), only held two full committee briefings in Annapolis, compared to five in 2004.

The upside is that the new building project is supposed to make public access simpler and more convenient to the public. In the old configuration, people were frequently forced to stand in the main hallway outside the committee hearing rooms waiting for a seat to open up.

Building regulations specified a limit on the number of people who could be in the rooms, and when issues come up like gun control, abortion, or just the parade of witnesses to testify on bond bills, the crowds easily exceed those limits.

The new committee rooms will offer significantly expanded seating, which should cut down on the hallway crowds. Sounds systems are improved, as are wireless network access and video projection systems.

The addition also includes some aesthetics and accommodations to those very powerful players mentioned earlier. The carpeting in the addition looks strikingly similar to the carpet on the floor of the House Chamber, a deep royal blue with small golden crests throughout.

The staff offices for the committees will be spacious, and the offices of the committee chairmen reflect their enormous stature, if not their ego.

In addition to the construction issue, my committee work was impacted by a major change. The previous chairman, John Hurson of Kensington, resigned his position to become a D.C. lobbyist for the cosmetics industry. You know from previous journal entries that these committee chairs are some of the most powerful players in Annapolis.

When Delegate Hurson left, he took the chance to criticize the lack of decorum and cooperation. His stock rose higher in my eyes due to his candor and insight.

In his place is Pete Hammen, a Democrat from downtown Baltimore. Pete is quiet, thoughtful, and knows the issues. Rest assured, though, that House Speaker Mike Busch has already obtained the necessary loyalty commitments from Chairman Hammen.

Security was also a focus this summer. The State Department of General Services (DGS) manages the physical security in the complex, including the increasingly intensive visitor control capabilities.

To enter any of the public buildings, you need a form of photo identification. You also have to queue up in a line to walk through a very sensitive metal detector. The standard warning about arriving earlier than you need to applies in Annapolis just like it does at Dulles Airport.

Those pesky large crowds that accompany the debate on controversial issues magnify the security problem. I've seen a line several hundred people long waiting to pass through a metal detector, looking like a well-dressed Rolling Stones concert line.

The DGS police recommended some common sense, reasonable protocols regarding the metal detector problem. To protect the buildings, public, and lawmakers, DGS recommended an access policy that allowed a limited number of people to bypass the detectors.

One of the groups not included in the original bypass provision were the professional lobbyists. Paid huge sums to gain access to lawmakers, these lobbyists (mostly lawyers, except for the ones that have been disbarred) perceive it a right of their profession to move through the complex with little restriction. Many are former legislators or staffers, and all recognize that their stock in trade is the ability to strike up a personal relationship with the delegates and senators, often outside the public eye.

When DGS announced that the lobbyists would have to go through the metal detectors, the scream was heard as far away as Garrett County. Two of the more prominent lobbyists, Bruce Bereano and Gerald Evans, threw a veritable fit. Both complained that they could not provide the services expected by their clients if they were trapped in a long line at a metal detector.

A House hearing and Senate hearing might be underway simultaneously, and these guys have to run back and forth between buildings. If they were forced to wait (like everyone else), then they might not be able to offer testimony on behalf of their clients. AAAHHH, poor little lobbyists.

Balance that professional inconvenience with the fact that Maryland residents might have to travel several hours to Annapolis to offer their opinion on a particular bill. Imagine the frustration of standing outside in the January Annapolis air, stomping your feet and blowing into your hands, only to see an Annapolis lobbyist elbow past waving a building pass at the guards.

So it begins. Tomorrow will feature a day full of budget and issue briefings, and the House Republicans will have to decide how we handle the election of the speaker. Last year we collectively refused to cast a vote, with 43 blank lights on the big electronic voting board. This year, some are arguing for a NO vote for Speaker Michael Busch. Just like last year, opinions are divided on how combative to be on opening day.

Expect a parliamentary maneuver by the Democrats to hold some of the veto overrides over for a few days, maybe a week or two. That allows the majority to bring those votes up later, and gives them time to "whip" recalcitrant Dems into line.

I wish I could write that I'm as excited about this session as I was three years ago. That would be a lie.

I dread the ugly, combative nature of an election year session in this era of divided government. I regret the fact that success will be measured in how pithy the attack quotes are. I fear that Maryland citizens will not benefit from the work of this legislature, only politicians more concerned about posturing than accomplishment.

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