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January 30, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 4

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

You’d have thought it was a mutiny in progress. Several Washington County legislators (present company included), mostly Republican, and mostly loyal to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, voted to override one of his vetoes.

My journal columns have been literally filled with reports about how the General Assembly has turned the practice of veto overrides into a regular part of our daily agenda. In previous sessions, veto overrides were very rare, recognizing the importance of this mechanism in preempting the will of the chief executive.

This year, the majority has been holding a veto override calendar daily, stringing out the toughest votes to insure enough time to gather the necessary votes.

The veto in question focused on the use of speed-monitoring cameras in school zones in Montgomery County. This bill passed the House and Senate with a comfortable margin last year. A number of Republican members either voted against the bill or laid off and didn’t cast a vote.

I voted for the bill last year. While I understand the traditional conservative ideology that suggests that cameras, whether for speed or red lights, are a dangerous technology intrusion into societal rights, I also accept the idea that local governments need to make decisions that are best for them and their own unique circumstances.

Partisan ideology in Annapolis makes for interesting debate, but really doesn’t do much at all to help solve unique local problems.

Montgomery County has had a serious problem with speeding in school zones and residential subdivisions. According to city and county officials, selective enforcement is unable to deal with the scope of this problem.

The Montgomery County legislative delegation sought this solution last year. Governor Ehrlich’s veto message cited the technology intrusion issue, concern over how an individual can be prosecuted through the use of a photograph, and a number of other valid technical issues.

You’ve already heard about the concept of local courtesy, an unwritten rule that says that local bills should be allowed to pass if the bill truly reflects the will of a local delegation.

What I haven’t written much about is the concept of horse-trading of votes. Last year, the Washington County delegation had a tip-jar bill working its way through the legislative process. Another local bill, this one clarified the process through which proceeds from tip-jar gaming are allocated in Washington County.

This bill ran into a real problem, both in the Ways and Means Committee and on the floor of the House. Members of the Washington County delegation worked with Republican and Democrat members to garner the necessary votes. In an odd twist, many conservative members refused to support the bill because it dealt with gaming.

That necessitated developing votes from some Democrat members. Several members of the Montgomery County delegation voted for the tip-jar bill – in committee and on the floor. On third reading, that tip-jar bill passed by just one vote. During the debate on this speed camera bill, several of those members pointedly reminded Washington County legislators about that past support.

So, the four Republican members of the Washington County delegation ended up voting for local courtesy and helping the Democrats to override a gubernatorial veto. In the course of the debate, Delegation Chairman Chris Shank used his floor telephone to solicit support from a couple of Montgomery County Democrats on some big upcoming Washington County issues, including support for a major Department of Corrections staffing issue.

The idea behind this is that there has to be some benefit back home for casting a vote that will create some level of embarrassment for the Ehrlich Administration. As soon as the vote was tallied and the morning session ended, Del. Tony O’Donnell (R., Calvert), the minority whip, pulled me aside to remark in visible frustration that the override could not have succeeded without Republican support.

Members of the GOP Caucus were quick to point out what they perceived as a betrayal of the governor’s agenda. The day after casting the vote, the governor’s chief of staff, James “Chip” DiPaula, called and asked me to come to his office. His concern had to do with the appearance of a rift in the relationship between delegates and the governor.

Chip could have legitimately handed me my head over this issue. Instead, and reflecting both his incredible political savvy and Governor Ehrlich’s intellect and legislative insight, Chip carefully and thoughtfully explained the impact of the vote to override the veto, and the apparent breakdown in team communication.

Here is the bluntly truthful analysis: I should have followed my intuition and just not cast a vote on this override. By voting for the override, I leant credibility to the ridiculous efforts of the Democratic leadership to poke a stick in the governor’s eye. To make matters worse, the entire Washington County delegation voted for the override, which gives political cover to Del. John Donoghue (D., Washington), who would have otherwise been the sole green vote on the override.

The fallout from this controversy will last for a few more days, and then will fade into the roar of session.

* * * * * * * * * *

Recent Frederick County political history included a particular campaign that suggested that “go along to get along” elected officials lack core beliefs and are thereby ineffective. This argument is the lowest common denominator politics of the worst kind.

The truth is that a truly effective state legislator is one who can distinguish between the policies that really matter and those, that while important, are not make or break issues.

Call it “picking your fight;” but good legislators comb the bills to find those that have significant impacts, both good and bad. Good bills get co-sponsored; bad bills get highlighted for future fights.

I also try to communicate with a group of people back home who usually have strong opinions, across the political spectrum. They act as a kind of “screen” for me, giving me the benefit of their insight and opinion. This serves as a real life counterpoint to the all of the noise in Annapolis.

* * * * * * * * * *

This week’s committee work included a briefing on the Medicare Part D drug benefit and a hearing on the stem cell bills, both embryonic and adult.

On the Part D program, no surprise, but the program is a total screw up, with seniors confused about the how, what, and when of the program. Several panels of experts, mostly advocates for senior citizens, paraded before the committee to express their frustration about the program and how to make it work.

My personal favorite testimony came from a professional pharmacist, who spoke about his experience dealing with confused seniors in his own pharmacy. To drive his point home, he recounted his own confusion about trying to pick a Part D program for himself and his wife. This is a guy who went to school for this stuff, and even he had trouble analyzing the lists of drugs and types of coverage. It’s no wonder grandpa and grandma can’t figure it out.

My biggest fear is that the states will be stuck trying to make this work. If the Congress is unwilling to extend the implementation, then states will have to fill in the gaps and try to make it work.

We can call that a “failure to perform” mandate. Our federal partners will force an increase in state spending to cover their flawed implementation, and we’ll just have to suck it up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last Wednesday was Stem Cell Day. The two major Stem Cell Research bills, Del. Sandy Rosenberg’s (D., Baltimore) embryonic bill and Del. Tanya Shewell’s (R., Carroll) adult bill, are both scheduled for a joint hearing of the Health and Government Operations and Appropriations Committees.

I wish I could tell you that this year there is some new, exciting breakthrough in this debate. If you read last year’s journals, you already know pretty much everything about this issue.

New wrinkles:

1. Governor Ehrlich has included capitol and operating funding for stem cell research without specifying how those monies are used.

Embryonic stem cell advocates claim that this signals the governor’s acceptance of the use of this money for that form of research, while adult stem cell advocates are hoping that by not specifying the style, the governor will encourage the less controversial research approach.

His bill just doesn’t describe how the money will be spent, so both sides are left to divine his intent. He would authorize $12 million for construction of a research facility, and $20 million for operating funds in the form of grants for the actual research.

2. Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley showed up to testify in favor of the House bill. He tried to take a cheap political shot at Governor Ehrlich by suggesting that Governor Ehrlich cost Maryland three years of research benefit by waiting until this year to offer research funding.

Delegate O’Donnell, the GOP whip, couldn’t pass up the chance to ask the mayor a question on the record. With all of the TV cameras running and newspaper journalists writing, Mr. O’Donnell asked Mayor O’Malley if he supported the budget request of the governor.

After bashing Governor Ehrlich for blatant political purposes, Mayor O’Malley was forced to admit that he did support the budget request for embryonic stem sell research. His answer was one word: “Yes.”

I theorize that Mayor O’Malley testified merely due to the presence of TV cameras. He was nowhere to be found when we went through this last year. Probably because the media wasn’t here, either.

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