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April 10, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 - Part 14

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

As you read this column, I'll be hooking up my laptop in the House Chamber, preparing for a long final day of the 421st General Assembly Session.

Midnight tonight marks the constitutional mandate to end the General Assembly. There are only two excuses to keep this circus rolling: if the annual budget is not adopted, or if the governor orders the session to continue beyond midnight.

The budget was balanced and approved two weeks ago. In fact, the final budget adoption was a love fest; smiles, handshakes and backslaps for everyone. A two billion dollar surplus will do that, you know.

Not so easy to predict is the outcome on an extension of the session, though. As I write this, the intense negotiations are still underway between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, legislative leaders, and executives from Baltimore Gas & Electric over the impending rate increases.

Last rumors had the collective negotiators narrowing in on a 15% rate increase, far more palatable than the initial 72% or even the lesser 40% increase that had been on the table last week.

Governor Ehrlich was quoted on television last Thursday floating the idea of keeping the General Assembly around after Monday if there wasn't a deal on the table. I'm certain he thinks it would be easier - as he describes it - to "get to yes" if a little pressure is applied to the legislative negotiators.

For now, the Democrats involved in the negotiation can posture and politicize the process. If they have to stay here past Monday, and can't get their campaigns started on time, they might be willing to work a little harder!

* * * * * * * * * *

These last few weeks have seen an unprecedented level of partisanship and acrimony in the run-up to the end of session. I've already written about the two most egregious examples of the exercise of raw power.

Democrats have forced a number of bills through the House, bypassing the normally languid pace of the legislature to get these bills on the governor' s desk.

Many of these bills alter gubernatorial powers, and others relate to major policy differences between the governor and the Democrats who lead the majority in the legislature.

A new twist in the Sine Die drama is the furor over the Baltimore City schools takeover by the Maryland Department of Education. State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's decision to intervene has riled every single power player in the Annapolis and Baltimore political universe.

When the state first threatened to intervene two years ago, and Governor Ehrlich offered $23 million of emergency state funding, Mayor Martin O' Malley and the Baltimore City school system refused to accept the aid and the technical assistance.

Failure has a way of compounding. In this case, that theory is backed up by the data. Students are failing to learn; families are failing to nurture; bureaucrats are failing to build, purchase, and maintain; teachers are failing to teach; and school system administrators are failing to lead.

Superintendent Grasmick is serious and passionate about public education and Maryland's children. Her decision to intervene in several Baltimore middle and high schools was the result of the tragic and continuing decline in the quality of the public education system in Baltimore, not partisan politics.

This contradicts the claims of Mayor Martin O'Malley, Baltimore schools' Chief Executive Officer Bonnie Copeland, and almost every single Baltimore legislator. All of these people are more concerned about protecting the status quo and scoring electoral points than they are the best interests and education of the children of Baltimore City.

The best-case scenario would depend on the intervention of the State Attorney General, J. Joseph Curran. In that instance, Mr. Curran would defend Superintendent Grasmick's actions, arguing that the record of failure in Baltimore is so obvious that the state must step in to improve the educational product and to protect precious federal funding.

Unfortunately for the school kids, that won't happen here. Attorney General Curran will defend his son-in-law Mayor O' Malley's position before he'll do the right thing on behalf of the state.

We haven't just been focusing on Baltimore schools, though. The last week has seen some fevered actions and a few big surprises.

First, in spite of a full-court press by Maryland Right-to-Life and the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Stem Cell Act passed with comfortable, veto-proof majority. Republican members who stand firm on the "life" issue, and that count includes almost the entire House Caucus of 43 and the Senate Caucus of 14, voted in opposition.

No one really knew what the governor would do, although many suspected that since he had included $20 million in funding in his budget proposal, without a prohibition on embryonic stem cell research, there was at least a chance he'd sign the final bill.

That bill doesn't specify one method over another, and limits embryonic stem cell research to embryos that are the by-product of in-vitro fertilization.

Governor Ehrlich called me the day after the House vote. He called my office, but I was in the Health and Government Operations Committee. My secretary put him on hold and called the committee staff to pull me out of the hearing.

When I got to the phone, she whispered, "Rick, it's Governor Ehrlich. He'll be on when I hang up." She did, and he was!

After a little small talk, he asked me if I was okay with my vote for the stem cell bill. He and his staff track these votes very carefully. They know who votes and how they vote. His concern seemed to be over how I thought my constituents would react to my vote.

Believe me when I tell you that I had been contemplating the answer to that question long before I ever cast the vote. I still think it was the right vote, and I hope my friends and supporters will understand my motivation.

I was able to witness him signing the bill into law, kind of a culmination of the activity that went into crafting a version of a bill that I could support, which is exactly the promise I made at the start of the session.

That signing ceremony was notable for another bill, as well. After several weeks of stress over the Healthy Air Act (also known as the Four Pollutants (4P) Bill), Governor Ehrlich added the bill to the list of bills that became law.

This bill makes a huge change in the acceptable levels of pollution in airborne effluent, especially affecting coal-fired power plants.

This was the bill that the Senate staff had slid under the governor's door after working hours, trying to be sure they met a constitutional deadline. One press report included the speculation that the governor would refuse to accept the bill, and would wait until after Sine Die to veto it.

In a move designed to frustrate Democrats who have been dogging him since the 2002 election, Governor Ehrlich didn't invite some of the key sponsors of the 4P bill to the signing ceremony. Those who weren't invited to the party threw a virtual hissy fit, especially Senator Paul Pinsky (D., PG), an avowed Ehrlich-hater.

It wasn't only Democrats who were angry over the bill signing, though. A number of Republicans, including Susan Krebs (R., Carroll/Howard) and Warren Miller (R., Howard), worked really hard in the Economic Matters Committee and on the floor to kill or amend the bill to strip out the most onerous provisions.

During their work, they were under the impression that the governor hated the bill, and would probably veto it if it came to his desk. Needless to say, they were disappointed in the seeing the bill become law.

In the end, I don't really think the governor had much choice. The final bill wasn't too different from the governor's own Clean Power Rule bill, and 17 House Republicans voted for the 4P bill on third reader.

Even if he had vetoed it, there were more than enough votes to override, and he would have lost a number of Republicans, too. So now Governor Ehrlich will be able to campaign as an environmentalist, with his Chesapeake Bay initiative from the 2003 Session yielding historic gains for the Bay, and his signing of the 4P bill making a major improvement in air quality for our state. Talk about stealing the Democrats agenda!

So now we head into a daylong Sine Die marathon. Still a lot of unresolved and unsettled issues, though. The Governor vetoed several bills, including:

- The bill to prevent the Department of Education from taking over Baltimore schools:

- The bill to fire the Public Service Commission, replacing them with new commissioners chosen by legislative leaders and the Governor:

- The bill requiring a re-elected Governor to get his Cabinet Secretaries reconfirmed by the Senate:

- Several bills designed to restrict or limit the power of BG&E to merge with Florida Power and Light; and

- A bill authorizing collective bargaining for state workers, not because he's against bargaining, but because one union (AFSCME) wants access to personal data for state workers.

The House met in a rare Saturday session, the Senate adjourned for the weekend. The significance of that action is that any of the vetoes on Senate bills will have to wait until today, as the Chamber that initiated a vetoed bill must act first to address the veto.

The Voting Rights bill veto was overridden by a vote of 93-45 in the House, following a lively debate. The most salient points of the debate focused on Republican concerns that early voting would be mostly available in Democratic precincts. No less than The Washington Post, no bastion of conservatism, has described the actions of the majority party as endangering the integrity of the upcoming election.

The veto of the bill to create restrictions on fundraising for University of Maryland Board of Regents members was overridden, 88-49. The debate was friendly and - for the most part - non-partisan. Republicans made some good points about how not all of our colleges and universities are held to this standard, and how some of the most egregious violations of ethics have come from regents that were appointed by Democrat governors. Yet at no time did the state legislature feel compelled to step in and limit their work.

Finally, the bulk of the override debates, and certainly the most passionate rhetoric, was saved for the Baltimore City school takeover bill. Every time a Republican rose to discuss the perspective of State Superintendent Grasmick, boos, hisses, and grunts raced through the Chamber. Veiled accusations of racism, shortsightedness, and a lack of true concern over the fate of Baltimore's schoolchildren was the chorus sung by the Democrats.

It breaks down like this: years of effort and tens of millions of dollars have gone into trying to prop up a failing system. Baltimore City schools are in an academic free fall, but allowing Nancy Grasmick and Bob Ehrlich to step in and use the power of the state to solve the problem would be catastrophic to the political interests of the Democrats.

Given that, the vote to override the governor's veto was 97-42, a comfortable majority.

Midnight Monday just can't get here quickly enough!

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