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January 23, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 3

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

This place is truly upside down. Three years ago, the watchword was belt-tightening. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich was warning anyone who would listen that jobs, programs, and projects would see cutbacks in the next two years.

The forecast was so dire that rumors of furloughs were floated. Just saying the word sent state employees scrambling to find their union representatives. Forcing them into unpaid leave to cover a budget shortfall was unconscionable.

In prior years, under Democrat governors, revenue would have been created to cover the gap. No one would have had to deal with the idea of a layoff or furlough.

Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert/PG) went so far as to explain it this succinctly: “We thought Kathleen would win, and that we wouldn’t have to deal with this.” Tentacle readers can spot the tax and spend reference, since the assumption was that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would have raised taxes to eliminate the structural deficit if she had been elected.

The forces of fate and elections weren’t on her side, though. Governor Ehrlich won that one with a comfortable enough margin that someone should have been reading the tea leaves.

It turns out that Maryland voters, previously assumed to be a swarm of pro-tax liberals, liked a message that promised to focus on essential services while controlling the growth of government.

So, here we are three years later, sitting on a budget surplus of $1.5 to $2 billion dollars. Borrowing from Larry the Cable Guy: “I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money!”

Governor Ehrlich has been waiting for a few years for this moment, and the timing couldn’t have been written better if his people had scripted it.

He has been traveling around the state announcing historic increases in public education funding, pay increases for state workers, big increases in environmental spending, and a tax break.

Election year campaigning, you say? Of course, it is. In fact, it’s the best kind of campaigning. Telling the voters that you kept the promises you made, and in keeping those same promises, you now have funding available to pay for some very popular new initiatives is the stuff political legends are made of.

So, how does this Ehrlich-style governance go over in Annapolis? Like a lead balloon, that’s how. At their pre-opening rally at an Annapolis area hotel, Senator Miller described the majority’s view of the minority in the upcoming session this way: “They (GOP leaders) will be flying high, but we’re going to get together and we’re going to shoot them down. We’re going to put them in the ground, and it’ll be 10 years before they crawl out again.”

Now, there’s a nominee for “The Consensus Builder of the Year” award. Is it any wonder why a member of the minority party looks forward to the future with trepidation?

I wrote last week about how accommodating Speaker Busch has been regarding the rights of the minority party. In an interesting turn, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D., NY) told a New York City audience that the U.S. House of Representatives operates “like a plantation.”

She decried the oppression of the minority, expressing disgust at how difficult it was to bring up legislative proposals and participate in policy debate.

If the U.S. House of Representatives operates like a plantation, then the Maryland House of Delegates is bloody, repressive dictatorship. The Maryland Senate supposedly offers the minority the right of filibuster, but with a comfortable 2-1 majority and recent rules changes to facilitate a vote to close debate, the minority must approach the ruling majority with the proper fealty to beg for recognition.

Veto overrides dominated the first full week of the legislature. The Wal-Mart and minimum wage veto were easily overridden in a rare Thursday evening session, and Tuesday, January 17, saw the voting reform bills vetoed by Governor Ehrlich overridden.

The three bills, taken together, substantially alter the manner and method of voting in Maryland. Democrats argue that ease of voting is the most important component of this debate, while Republicans argue that making it easier to vote also makes elections more susceptible to fraud.

The interesting insider observation here is that a few of the bills only passed by 81 or 83 votes in the House. These votes wouldn’t have been sufficient to override Governor Ehrlich’s veto, as the constitution requires 85 votes.

The “whipping” process by the majority has lived up to its billing. The majority put up a minimum of 92 votes on all of these bills, easily exceeding the standard.

On House Bill 622, the Absentee Voting on Demand bill, every member of the House of Delegates of voted for this bill last year, which would make it easier to request and vote via absentee ballot.

That’s right, every Republican and Democrat member present voted for the bill. Unfortunately, the House of Delegates cast those votes prior to the analysis of the purpose of the bill conducted by Linda Lamone, supervisor of the State Board of Elections.

Ms. Lamone and her board had some serious reservations about the state board’s ability to implement these new provisions. Those reservations from the Election Board formed the basis of the governor’s veto. Forty Republicans (including yours truly) voted to sustain the governor’s veto, after having voted in favor of the bill last year. Call it a loyalty vote!

Governor Ehrlich has unveiled his budget for FY 2007. The new budget includes an increase in state spending of 12%, totaling $29.6 billion. This significant increase comes after three years of cutbacks, reductions, and transfers.

House and Senate leadership leapt at the chance to attack the governor’s budget proposal as too much spending. Speaker Mike Busch is quoted in Baltimore’s Sun saying: "He makes 'Parris Spendening look like Ebenezer Scrooge."

This remark comes from the same guy who proposed over $1 billion in new taxes in the first year of the current four-year legislative term. Seems almost silly, doesn’t it?

Governor Ehrlich, not to be outdone in his moment of largesse, offered the following to the same newspaper, Charm City’s BS: "If the same people who went on a spending binge right on the edge of a recession ... have an issue with this budget, I think they may not have a whole lot of credibility."

So, the back and forth continues, with each side staking out their firm position. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a high-ranking member speaks honestly and openly. Case in point is Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D., Montgomery). He was also quoted in the BS, taking a little different tack than the others.

"It puts us in a tough position, but we have always been willing to make the cuts. Somebody's got to be the bad guy." Delegate Barve finds himself and the whole Democrat Caucus in a very difficult position. Governor Ehrlich’s FY07 budget addresses his essential priorities and does so in the context of a substantial surplus.

Expect Frederick County to do pretty well when all is said and done. The final school construction capital funding amount might approach $20 million. We’re sitting at almost $15 million today, and we’ve already attended the Beg-a-Thon with the Board of Public Works. Dr. Mike Schaden, president of our board of education, and Superintendent Linda Burgee did a good job, and Governor Ehrlich acknowledged the significant growth pressures facing our schools. He also acknowledged the voting records of the delegation (except for one member in particular).

The fact is that there is a good deal of hypocrisy running rampant in Annapolis during this “silly season.” While the Democrats are quick to point out the historic increase in spending, and promise to pare it down substantially, Republicans will lie in wait for those same reductions and point out how every cut the majority makes through the legislative process will impact some real need in Maryland.

The summer-long debate will feel like another Twilight Zone episode, with liberal Democrats complaining about out-of-control spending, while the Republicans will be belittling the Democrats for making cuts to popular programs and projects.

Yellow Cab
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