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June 19, 2006

Special Session: An excuse to do little – Part 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Here we go again, wrestling with a complex and confusing issue in a very compressed timeline. Last year it was medical malpractice, and given the time and ability to focus, the outcome did very little to solve the problem, but both sides ended up claiming victory.

Before writing about what happened, we need to unravel the great Special Session mystery. Who called this special and extraordinary gathering?

Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and President Mike Miller (D., Calvert/PG) asked members of their respective chambers to sign a petition to require the governor to “call” the Special Session. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., issued an Executive Order before he received this petition. The General Assembly leadership claims he only did so to get his order out before the leadership could require him to do so. We’ll never know the truth, but the claims make good entertainment on both sides.

The discussions started off in a political context, not a policy context. If there is one sure way to doom a common sense, rational approach to settling a pressing policy issue, it is to hold a Democrat and Republican caucus meeting as the initial point of discussion, as happened here.

The Democrat mission was to pass a bill that: deferred the BG&E rate increase (for 11 months); eliminate the current Public Service Commission; replace PSC members which people selected by General Assembly leaders, not the governor; and force consumers to participate in an interest-payback program that lasts 10 years.

A subliminal message of Democrat legislators was that anything wrong with the electric utilities, from pricing to regulation, was the fault of Governor Ehrlich.

Republicans, on the other hand, had a few fundamental concerns of their own. Any discussion of rate caps or deferrals raised the specter of the failed 1999 deregulation scheme that brought us here in the first place. If the six-year rate cap is one of the causes of high electric rates now, how does implementing another 11-month rate cap bring us lower electric rates in the future?

A more significant concern is the fact that consumers will be forced to participate in the interest-payback during the 11-month deferral. Even the 140,000 BG&E customers, who have already “opted out” of the plan, willingly paying the full 72% rate increase, will find themselves stuck with a monthly interest payment.

It is in that context that the two warring parties gathered last Monday evening. In a weird twist, the two groups meet in large conference rooms that are separated by a 15-foot hallway. In terms of ideology and outcomes, the philosophical gulf couldn’t be wider.

So, call Monday night a gathering of the troops and an issue of the order of battle. Both sides were fed the party line, or offered the particular flavor of Kool Aid for partisan consumption.

Tuesday brought the public hearings before the appropriate legislative committees. Usually, such hearings are held on a bill, and that bill is available well in advance for both the legislators and the public.

In this case, the bill drafting attorneys were working through Monday into the wee hours of Tuesday, and the draft of the bill was not available for distribution or review in advance of the hearing.

How in the world can you expect a citizen or legislator to grasp the complexity of this issue without the courtesy of an advanced review of the language that would be enacted into Maryland law?

Presumably, our committee members are the issue experts. They deal with the utility industry and they regularly review the sections of the Maryland annotated code that deals with electricity service and regulation. During a regular General Assembly session, bill hearings on complex bills are excruciating affairs: lengthy, rambling, and wide-ranging.

On Tuesday everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. That isn’t a good policy when you know what you’re doing, and it’s a terrible policy when you really don’t have the faintest idea of what you trying to do.

The advance billing from the House and Senate leadership also indicated that the body would reconsider child sexual predator legislation, including the language known as Jessica’s Law. You might recall that this issue died on a silly procedural maneuver orchestrated by Del. Anthony Brown (D., PG) during the regular session.

Delegate Brown is serving as Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s running mate and had been since last fall. No self-respecting lieutenant governor candidate could be stuck with the reputation as the guy who killed the bill to protect children from sexual predators.

At the GOP Caucus meeting Monday night, it was unclear as to whether the Democrats would deal with the child sexual predator at all. No committee hearings were scheduled, and no bill text was available.

The actual House session was scheduled to begin Wednesday morning at 10 A.M. Work actually got underway around 10:35, and between 10:45 and noon the only thing that was done was to get the BG&E rate bill read over the desk and referred to the Economic Matters Committee.

Sometime between the morning and afternoon sessions, the practical political reality of Delegate Brown’s procedural execution of Jessica’s Law must have dawned on the majority. Suddenly, the Judiciary Committee had a bill before them.

The House recessed at noon, and committee hearings were scheduled for 2 P.M. The House came back to the chamber at 2, and the only significant work was the first reading of the Child Sexual Predator bill.

Before recessing at 4 P.M., Speaker Busch suggested that delegates might want to arrange hotels for the night. He planned to get through the legislative calendar during the course of the evening, and implied it would be a long night.

That suggestion might help a delegate that had the foresight to pack an overnight bag, but for a delegate from Brunswick who has to drive home, an overnight stay isn’t much help.

Tomorrow, in Part Two, the House reconvenes to discuss the Senate bill on the BG&E rate increase and the House measure on child sexual predators.

Yellow Cab
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