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February 6, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 5 (1)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week saw the drama (?) of a partisan clash over the definition of marriage play out fully. Recently Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock held that the Maryland Annotated Code definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

Last year, former Del. Chuck Boutin (R., Harford) introduced a constitutional amendment to cement that definition, having Maryland voters weigh in on a ballot question. Delegate Boutin felt that it was just a matter of time before the courts would receive a case and rule against the existing language.

At that time, Democrats argued that the amendment was unnecessary. They claimed that this pre-emptive maneuver was merely political posturing, since there was no real reason for the dramatic step of a constitutional amendment.

Time and a lawsuit proved Delegate Boutin right. His bill died in the House Judiciary Committee in spite of some parliamentary maneuvers by Republicans to bring the bill to a vote on the floor.

This year, Del. Don Dwyer (R., Anne Arundel) brought the constitutional amendment out. I’ve written about Don before. He is easily the most conservative member of the House, and he has a dedicated following from church groups around the state.

Unlike last year, Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) promised that the bill would be given a vote on the floor of the House. This promise was made to the media, and more importantly, this promise was made to Democrat delegates who come from districts that overwhelmingly voted for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.

The importance for them is that they probably need to be recorded as voting for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman. If those delegates vote against the amendment, they would certainly have to explain that in a general election campaign later this year.

The bill had a hearing this past week. As was the case last year, well over 100 witnesses testified both for and against the bill. Much of the testimony was extremely personal and emotional, as is usually the case in such a volatile issue.

The magic of this journal is that you get to see “behind the veil” on these stories that are so widely reported. So as we lift the curtain, here’s the back-story on last week.

The Republican Caucus had been working since just before the start of session to line up 47 signatures on a discharge petition. Rule 42 of the House states that any member may present a petition, signed by 47 members, at which point the Speaker will order the bill be brought to the Floor, with or without a committee recommendation.

The key to this maneuver is timing. It can only be done after the bill has been in committee for at least 20 days, and doesn’t apply to the budget bill or any bill referred to the House Rules Committee.

There are 43 Republican members, so a discharge petition cannot succeed without Democrat members supporting the effort. It would normally be impossible for Republicans to rally Democrats to sign a petition, especially if the Speaker and his leadership team are putting on the squeeze.

This issue is different, though. The political implications are substantial, and every single member knows it.

Delegate Dwyer circulated his petition and got four Democrats to sign it. He obtained signatures from Del. Rosetta Parker (D., P.G.), Del. Kevin Kelly (D., Allegheny), Del. Ted Sophocleus (D, Baltimore County), and Del. Joan Cadden (D., Anne Arundel).

You can read that anywhere. What you won’t see anywhere but here is that there were a few problems with this petition effort.

First, Delegate Cadden did sign, but her name is not on the official petition. When Delegate Dwyer started his petition drive in the fall of 2005, he circulated little slips of paper containing language that would commit the signer of that paper to being a member of the petition drive.

The House Rules do not specify the actual form and format of a petition, but the Bill Drafting Manual produced by the clerk’s office does. Recognizing that, Delegate Dwyer’s little pieces of paper might not survive scrutiny, he had a petition document drawn up that met that standard.

He then went to all 47 delegates who had signed his petition to obtain their signatures on the proper form. Delegate Cadden refused to sign the second document.

With her refusal, the petition was now suspect. I was convinced that if Delegate Dwyer presented it, the Speaker and Clerk would rule it invalid. Mr. Dwyer then pursued obtaining an extra “insurance” signature. At the same time, the caucus communicated to the press that we were one or two signatures short of 47.

On Wednesday, one day before the secret date to drop the petition, religious and conservative interests across the state were asked to pressure their delegates to sign the petition. No additional signatures resulted from this last minute push.

Tomorrow: The dramatic conclusion and a parliamentary lesson in hard-ball politics.

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

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