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April 17, 2006

General Assembly Journal – Part 16

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

By all accounts, the just concluded session of the Maryland General Assembly was one of the most tense and contentious in recent memory. Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert/PG) was asked what he thought of divided government. His response was that he hoped it wouldn’t happen again for a long time.

I guess he wouldn’t, considering how ineffective he’s been in thwarting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s policy success.

As I write this, we’re anticipating a little more divided government experience before the 2006 election. By allowing the BGE deal to implode, a special session to address a rate stabilization plan for BGE consumers and the planned merger with Florida Power and Light appears inevitable.

Why do what BGE electric consumers pay matter to you, and why does it justify a special session? Imagine what you’ll do when the rate caps are lifted for Allegany Power in December 2008 and your next bill reflects a 72% increase in electricity?

This is a state problem, not a specific utility ratepayer problem. The solution we develop for BGE can be used as a template for the other utility companies.

The Senate wanted to force the merger to undergo scrutiny by J. Joseph Curran, Maryland’s attorney general. In addition, the Senate wanted to replace the five-member Public Service Commission with members appointed by a mix of the governor, the Senate president, the Speaker of the House, and the attorney general.

The strategy is simple. Senator Miller was the champion of utility de-regulation. That flawed logic suggested that releasing the utilities from government rule would spur free market competition, driving rates much lower.

It never happened!

Now, years later, the worst-case deregulation scenario is coming true. The utility providers in Maryland are paying the highest prices for power in our nation’s history; there is no competition; and consumer prices are set to smash through the roof as the caps come off.

Senator Miller needs a scapegoat, someone to blame, to divert attention from his disastrous policy. He’s found his victim in the Maryland Public Service Commission. Hence, his strong desire to keep them firmly focused at the center of the controversy.

Heaven forbid that someone (especially the voters) figures out the legislature, not the PSC, are responsible for our current circumstance. That’s exactly why it was considered acceptable to blow up a carefully crafted, bi-partisan agreement to solve the rate issue.

What I couldn’t have known was what was happening in the Senate chamber as the minutes ticked down toward adjournment. I knew that we in the House had acted in a bi-partisan manner to resolve the problem, voting to accept the rate stabilization plan that had been carefully crafted over the last few days by a team including the governor, legislators, and executives from BGE.

We dealt with the bill in record time, approving it on second reader, suspending the rules, and moving immediately to third reader for a final vote. An attempt to extend debate by two Republicans was halted when Del. Sonny Minnick (D., Baltimore Co.) fulfilled his most important Floor responsibility and “moved the previous question.” That motion effectively ended Floor debate, and forced the pending vote.

A huge 128-8 vote sent the bill off to the Senate with about 29 minutes left on the clock until midnight. Remember, though, that this bill, and the compromise contained within, had been the subject of hours of discussion throughout the day, including that infamous GOP Caucus meeting where John Favazza, chief aide to House Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel), had joined our Republican Caucus leaders to urge passage of the bill.

I now know that the bill failed by one vote in the Senate, with two Senators not voting. Sen. Andy Harris (R., Baltimore Co.) and Sen. Alex Mooney (R., Frederick/Washington) didn’t cast a vote because they were concerned with the details of the proposal and method by which the bill came before them.

Now there are only three possible outcomes. First, Governor Ehrlich uses his broad executive power to strike a deal with BGE. Second, the General Assembly is called back into special session to execute a deal. Third, no deal is struck, and this summer BGE ratepayers receive a 72% increase in their electric bills.

Even with this depressing ending to the 421st General Assembly Session, an amazing amount was accomplished by the 188-member legislature in the last 90 days.

Here’s a topic-by-topic analysis:

State Budget: During my four-year term, this state has made as dramatic an economic recovery as any state in history. In 2003, we came into office staring down the barrel of an almost $4 billion deficit. Today, that deficit projection has turned into a $2 billion surplus. That surplus has allowed a lot of major programs to be funded, an almost 11% increase in state spending. There are no new taxes in this spending plan, an amazing feat considering the Democrat leadership argued in 2002-2003 that a major tax increase was both necessary and unavoidable. Despite the claims of the Democrats, Governor Ehrlich gets to put a checkmark in the WIN column for his management of state fiscal resources.

Eminent Domain: Prior to session, you’d have thought that a major change was coming as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo vs. City of New London (CT) decision. Legislators from all sides spoke about the need to change Maryland law to prohibit the “taking” of private property for the economic gain of another. In the best traditions of the Maryland General Assembly, and in spite of all of the political rhetoric, absolutely nothing has changed. Annapolis analysts can look to two aspects of the debate for the clues to the outcome. First, the majority of the calls for change came from Republican legislators. Second, Speaker of the House Busch was quoted before session saying: “I don’t see where Maryland has had a real problem with this. I’m not sure we need to change Maryland law.” And so we didn’t change the law, in spite of more than a dozen bills that would have done so. The victors here: Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee; the Maryland Municipal League; and the Maryland Association of Counties. The big loser: individual property rights.

Assault Weapons Ban: Another year and another failed effort by liberals to reduce the 2nd Amendment rights of Maryland citizens. A World War II vintage M-1 carbine would qualify as an assault weapon, and the bill died a quiet death, shot down by common sense. The winners and losers are obvious.

Health Care: For the third year in a row, the biggest policy accomplishments in Annapolis were in the area of health care. Governor Ehrlich signed the Stem Cell Research Act into law, accepting the fact that the General Assembly would not let him claim full credit. The governor’s budget included language allowing adult and embryonic stem cell research grants, reviewed and recommended by technical experts, which removed politics form the equation. The House passed a bill that gave priority to embryonic research, while the Senate passed a bill very similar to Governor Ehrlich’s approach. In the end, a conference committee chose the Senate version, and the governor signed the bill into law. Winners: Governor Ehrlich; Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D., Baltimore); Sen. Paula Hollinger (D., Baltimore Co.); researchers, and the bio-tech industry in Maryland. Losers: Opponents of a more moderate approach, at both ideological extremes.

Environment: Governor Ehrlich has a legitimate case to make claiming to be the “Environmental Governor,” a claim his predecessor regularly made. Governor Ehrlich has signed two groundbreaking measures into law during his first term, the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act and the Healthy Air Act. The first law will remove millions of tons of nutrients from the Bay; the second will remove large amounts of toxic pollutants from the airborne effluent of power plants and heavy industry. The Healthy Air Act closely maps Ehrlich’s Clean Power Rule bill, another case of Democrats “baiting and switching” their own initiative on one of his ideas. Winners: Obviously, Governor Ehrlich. Less obvious is Del. Jim Hubbard (D., PG), a tireless advocate for this idea throughout his legislative career. Losers: Industry, especially the electric generators, and Democrat Party strategists who lost another weapon in the rhetorical battle against a centrist Republican incumbent.

Local Government/Annexation: Surprisingly, this was one of the most controversial issues this year. The Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), the group that lobbies for county government, argued that municipal annexations were the cause of serious growth impact issues around Maryland. There are a few horror stories on the Eastern Shore that lend some credibility to this, and clearly, there are growth concerns in rural and suburban counties as the urban out-migration continues. MACo’s solution was to give county government more power over municipal annexations, more specifically to give the county a vote on approving an annexation. The Maryland Municipal League (MML), defenders of town and city governance, countered that what Maryland has is a growth problem, not an annexation problem. Giving counties a vote on municipal annexations would probably mean that no more land would be annexed, and counties would allow growth to continue in unincorporated areas. Both groups, along with county and municipal leaders from across the state, converged on Annapolis to argue for their interests. In the end, a compromise was reached that does not give the counties a specific vote, but does broaden their ability to affect municipal land use planning. MACo and MML were happy with the compromise, but the building and development industry has expressed their concern over the outcome. It remains to be seen if the governor will sign the bill. For winners, you can look at the eminent domain issue above, as the names are exactly the same. Delegate McIntosh is the subject of a whisper campaign for Speaker of the House if Delegate Busch is not re-elected (he’ll be Speaker again if he is re-elected). She has proven her ability to wrestle with tough issues. The losers here are folks in the residential development industry. If counties around the state continue to reflect a no or slow growth mentality, this bill will give them the tools to slow things down even further. * * * * * * * * * * So, now the campaigns begin, and I’ll try to examine that more closely in a future column. For now, the General Assembly Journal completes its last chapter for the 2003-2006 term. Looking back, I still remember writing that first column, the starry-eyed optimism that accompanied me on my first official trip to Annapolis.

I take away from this the experience of a lifetime. I have made friends that will last beyond the context of politics. I have made my mark, humble as it is, on the history of our great State. I have seen bills I crafted pass both chambers (one even passed with unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate), and I have seen my bills shot down for no obvious reason. I have seen the pettiest of political argument, and I have witnessed stirring, inspiring, and passionate debate.

Without tipping my hand regarding my own political future, I’m hoping this isn’t the last chapter of the General Assembly Journal I ever write. How about General Assembly Journal 2007 – Part 1?

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

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