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As Long as We Remember...

March 27, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 12

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Two and a half weeks left in the 421st Maryland General Assembly, and the monkey business meter is registering off the chart.

I wrote a few issues back about a new phenomenon wherein the Democratic leadership of the House decides to kill a bill, sponsored by a Republican, and substitutes a bill sponsored by a Democrat.

I used one local specific example, that being Patrick Hogan’s lead paint abatement bill. Great bill, and he’s been working the issue for several years. He got screwed, plain and simple.

The March 23, 2006, Session may go down in history as the day when the most blatant, unnecessary bait and switch ever occurred.

On the Third Reading calendar there were two bills related to registered child sexual offenders. One, House Bill 4, dealt with supervision, notification, and penalties for parole-related violations. The other, House Bill 1401, contained mandatory sentence provisions for child sexual offenders.

House Bill 1401 had the title: Jessica’s Law. A serial child sex offender murdered Jessica Lunsford, and a nationwide movement to have state’s adopt a mandatory sentencing bill in her memory is sweeping the land.

Del. Tony O’Donnell (R., Calvert), the House minority whip, filed the bill this year. Prior attempts to pass this legislation have failed, and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Del. Joe Vallario (D., PG), a trial attorney, typically looks with disdain on mandatory sentencing bills.

This year is different. Bill O’ Reilly, the anchor of the top-rated “The O’Reilly Factor” on the Fox News channel, has taken a personal interest in these laws. Mr. O’Reilly has made it his personal mission to see that every state takes up a version of Jessica’s law.

I watch Mr. O’Reilly’s show regularly, so imagine my surprise on March 8 when the program teaser featured the host talking about the Maryland House of Delegates. Mr. O’Reilly indicated that Del. Tony O’Donnell would be joining him on the program.

Sure enough, in the last quarter hour, there he was, my minority whip. He had driven up to Baltimore’s WBFF studio to be on camera with Mr. O’Reilly.

Tony was superb; calm, cool, and collected in his 7-minute segment. He laid it out for anyone watching the program. He explained how difficult it would be to pass the bill in Maryland, how the committee's chair could actually kill the bill by sticking it in the proverbial drawer.

Mr. O’Reilly expressed shocked that one legislator could possess that much power, and urged viewers in Maryland to inundate Delegate Vallario with email and phone calls. Mr. O’Reilly also indicated that he would follow-up with Delegate O’Donnell to see how the bill was handled.

Well, it worked!

Chairman Vallario’s staff stopped answering their phones on the morning of March 9 due to the call volume. The threat of Mr. O’Reilly’s continued attention must have worked, because miraculously, the House Judiciary Committee passed HB 1401.

Back to March 23 now. Any celebration about getting Jessica’s Law (HB 1401) to third reader was very short-lived. Even though the vote in the Judiciary Committee was solid and bi-partisan (21-1), the morning session on the Floor turned the world upside down.

It turns out that Speaker of the House Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) had decided to make his voice heard in this debate. He led an effort to strip out all of the important mandatory sentencing minimums from Delegate O’Donnell’s bill and roll them into a bill sponsored by a Democrat. Again, with the bait and switch routine!

So the House, along party lines, voted to amend the good stuff from Tony’s bill into HB 4, and to send Tony’s bill (HB 1401) back to committee, where it will disappear forever. There was a moment of high political drama, though.

To send his bill back, the Speaker had to get a motion to recommit Tony’s bill. As soon as they had the motion, Tony leapt to his feet to object to the recommitment motion. To recommit, the Speaker needed a simple majority.

Tony gave a great speech in defense of allowing his bill to get a full Floor vote, and it was apparent to anyone watching that the Democrats were split. When the Speaker called for the vote, they didn’t have enough votes!

Remember, this is the party with the 2-1 majority, and they couldn’t muster the votes to do what they wanted. Majority Whip Del. Anthony Brown (D., PG) was forced to wander up and down the aisles prowling for recalcitrant votes, twisting arms and making threats to get his members in line.

In the end, they got what they wanted. It took them almost 20 long minutes to do it, though. Another indication of the viability of the two-party system in Maryland!

Finally, a word about another really stupid bill. Senate Bill 735, the brainchild of Sen. Leonard Teitelbaum (D., Montgomery), requires the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to adopt regulations for youth baseball (from 9-17) that designate the types of approved baseball protective gear and equipment that are appropriate to each position.

Truthfully, this could only come from a Montgomery County legislator. Home to legions of “nanny state” advocates, Montgomery countians won’t let us lesser humans subject our kids to the dangers of baseball without cloaking them in “approved” safety gear.

If it weren’t enough that we have to waste valuable legislative time on this debate, you need to read the inspired words of the Department of Legislative Services from the Fiscal & Policy Note on the bill.

Local Fiscal Effect: None. Any expenditures for protective youth baseball gear will be the responsibility of the parents or guardians of youth who play baseball coordinated by leagues or organizations.

Yep, that’s right. This is good because it doesn’t cost government any more money. It’ll bankrupt Mom and Dad, but if Johnny wants to play ball, he needs that Kevlar armor!

Business Effect: Potential significant increase for retailers who sell approved protective gear and equipment.

So, I guess there is an upside after all! Mom and Dad will get soaked, but Al’s Sporting Goods will be smiling all the way to the bank.

So, what are we talking about? How about full-face masks for batters? Not enough for you? Picture fielders with big bug-eyed googles trying to look intimidating as they stare down a batter!

A catcher will look like a hockey goaltender, with barely an inch of exposed uniform. Batters would have elbows and knees covered, protecting them from errant pitches. It’s hard enough for a kid to beat out a weak grounder, imagine the sprint to first base with knee pads, elbow pads, and a full face mask!

A study on youth baseball injuries printed February 5, 2003 in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that there was a 23% reduced risk of ball-related injury for youth who used safety balls, which are not as hard as traditional balls. The study also found that there was a 35% reduced risk of facial injuries for youth that used faceguards.

No doubt a compelling case can be made for just about any well-intentioned – but goofy law. I played a lot of baseball, from the sandlot to organized league play. We wore a batting helmet, and that was about the extent of our protective gear.

We learned to get out of the way of the ball, a reasonably effective risk mitigation technique.

I fear the Fiscal Note has a major flaw in it. The drafter failed to calculate the costs of the Safety Gear and Equipment Police, coming soon to a ball diamond near you.

Forget the crack of the bat; soon we’ll be listening to the clank of the body armor on a bright sunny summer day!

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