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April 14, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 - Part 15

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The Legislature's Longest Day

After a long Saturday Session, we were blessed with a late start on Monday. Committee voting sessions began at 11 A.M., but I was in the office sifting through the normal mountain of paperwork at 9.

The day seemed to progress much like the other 89, with calendar upon calendar of non-controversial legislation, mostly the type branded local courtesy. The early action was either in the Senate or upstairs in the governor's office.

The ongoing dialogue between the governor, a team of Senate and House negotiators, and BGE officials has been taking place on and off over the last several weeks over a planned 72 percent rate increase scheduled for July. BGE continued to sweeten the pot as the hours until Sine Die continued to tick away.

In my Monday column on The Tentacle, I spent some time talking about the Baltimore City schools issue. The House voted pretty much along party lines to overturn Governor Robert Ehrlich's veto of the bill that would prevent the State Department of Education from stepping in to fix a number of consistently failing middle and high schools.

Readers will impute motive, and may suggest that my vote was a partisan vote out of blind allegiance to the governor. Those readers would be the victim of blind partisan obedience and would have ignored a tragically depressing history of a failure to give to kids in Baltimore what we in Frederick take for granted everyday.

I subscribe to the theory that the Maryland Constitution contains only one mandated state government service, that being a public education for every child. The Constitution does not imply that because you live in a poor neighborhood, you deserve less opportunity for a decent education.

That pathetic outcome stems from a number of factors, including a lack of local funding, a sense of apathy towards the problem in more affluent regions, and the breakdowns in the social and economic factors that help prepare and sustain children for learning in other parts of the state.

So, into this breach step Governor Ehrlich and State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick. Their plan involved bringing in outside experts and professionals, people with the qualifications to bring about more rapid corrective actions and to produce better outcomes.

As soon as their plans were announced, Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Baltimore City Council, the city's school board, the Maryland State Teacher's Association, and the Democrat leadership in the legislature banded together to prevent the state education department from doing its job.

Following the House of Delegates, the state Senate voted to overturn the governor's veto. Mayor O'Malley sat in the gallery, offering a thumbs-up to the senators who argued to protect the status quo.

Following the veto override, Mayor O'Malley descended the marble steps from the second floor gallery into a sea of television cameras. His smile spread from ear-to-ear, and he gladly trumpeted his success in "defeating" Governor Ehrlich.

My question is: Who did he defeat, and is this really a moment for celebration? Should we celebrate that these schools have, and will now continue to, graduate children who cannot read, add, or subtract? Should we consider it a policy victory when hundreds of children will be denied the chance to rise above their present circumstance because politicians and bureaucrats were more concerned about political appearances than they were about opportunity?

I think those overrides tell the story of the 2006 General Assembly Session. Taken together, the legislature's actions to diminish the powers of the governor, the blatant exercise of power to prevent a radical solution to the education issue, and the string of petty, partisan punitive measures reflect a majority desperate to retain their tenuous grip on power, and also reflect the rising power of an increasingly effective and vocal minority.

Back to Sine Die, though. In addition to the Baltimore schools override, the Senate picked up where the House left off and shot down several other vetoes. The Maryland University Board of Regents bill, singling out Richard Hug, Governor Ehrlich's chief fundraiser, was overturned on a 29-18 vote, exactly the affirmative number needed to reverse a veto. This measure prevents members of the Board of Regents from participating in political fund raising activities.

If I were Mr. Hug, as much as I know he enjoys helping lead the University system, I'd resign from the Board of Regents to raise a ton of money for the governor's re-election. That money won't just re-elect Bob Ehrlich; it will help bring in 12-15 new Republican delegates, and 6-7 new Republican senators.

Those numbers mean a tilt in the traditional balance of power in Annapolis, and will forever alter the political landscape of Maryland. Dick Hug could turn this personal defeat into a crusade to make Maryland a two party state.

In my last column, I also wrote about the fact the Senate bill vetoes had to be overturned in the Senate before coming before the House. During the day on Sine Die, Senate President Mike Miller got down to the business of sending political signals to the chief executive.

The Senate overturned the vetoes of the bill to require the reappointment of cabinet secretaries in the event a governor is re-elected, the bill to immediately fire the five-member Public Service Commission, and the Voting Rights Act, which could legitimately be entitled the Democrat Election Protection Act.

I heard a delegate from Montgomery County express his anger over the treatment of Democrats by Transportation Secretary Bob Flanagan. The problem seemed to be Flanagan's failure to invite Democrats to ribbon cutting events and funding announcements.

It's a little hard for me to be too sensitive to these complaints. I was working for former Frederick Mayor Jim Grimes when the groundbreaking ceremony was scheduled for the downtown MARC Station on East Street.

Gov. Parris Glendening attended this event, along with his Secretary of Transportation, James Lighthizer. As a lowly city employee, I stood off to the side and watched the posturing and politicking.

At one point, I noticed Governor Glendening motion to Secretary Lighthizer and a state trooper. The trooper then removed a chair from the platform that had been constructed for the event.

It wasn't until Rep. Roscoe Bartlett walked to the platform that I realized that there was no place for him to sit with the removal of the chair. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Governor Glendening, Secretary Lighthizer, and County Commissioner President David Gray all had seats designated. Roscoe was left standing with the crowd.

I didn't like that disrespectful treatment, nor did the members of the Frederick County legislative delegation. I didn't see any of our legislators rush back to Annapolis to reduce the powers of the governor, though.

As far as Frederick County was concerned, Sine Die was a very stressful day. My colleagues and I put a lot of effort into (and take a lot of pride in) getting our county legislative package through the twists and turns of the legislature.

As of noon on Sine Die, we had seen half of our package pass both chambers, the other half languishing in the Senate. With the huge issue of the BGE rates and merger with Florida Power and Light hanging over both chambers, I was really getting antsy about our county bills.

I try to keep in regular contact with John Mathias, the Frederick County attorney. John has as much experience with the quirks of shepherding legislation through the process as anyone, but both he and I were completely flummoxed by the goings-on.

As the clock struck midnight, we ended up with all but two of our bills passing both chambers. We lost a bill to create a surcharge on divorces in the House Judiciary Committee, and we failed to get a collective bargaining bill for corrections officers through the third reading process in the Senate. The odd thing is that we've gotten collective bargaining bills out for Sheriff's Deputies and firefighters, but the corrections officers will have to wait until next year.

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