February 12, 2007
General Assembly Journal 2007 – Volume 4
A special treat during the 90 day session is a trip to Famous Dave's in Annapolis. For each of the last four years, I've had the occasion to dine with two skilled veterans from the Frederick delegation, Don Elliott (R., Frederick/Carroll) and Paul Stull (R., Frederick).
I admire each of these gents, both for their experience and their dignity. Paul, whose commitment to education and agriculture are a matter of legend throughout Maryland, has been a thoughtful mentor. Don has been my virtual encyclopedia of healthcare knowledge, never showing the slightest irritation at my frequent questions. And I've asked a ton.
It was on one of these evening of good food and politics last year that Paul mentioned his growing weariness in leading the delegation. Paul had served as the chairman for four years, and had done an outstanding job.
During the 2003-2007 term, Paul was the delegation chair, and I served as the vice chairman. Vice chairman is one of those jobs without a job description, kind of like waiting around for the boss to give you something to do.
I had the benefit of watching Paul work, and I thought I had a decent handle on what the job of chairman entailed. I was a little surprised to hear Paul indicate he'd thought about stepping down after the election, as he seemed to enjoy the job. It doesn't include any more money, but does carry a burden of responsibility.
Basically, shepherding the county commissioners' legislative package through the halls of Annapolis falls on the shoulders of the chairman. The steps in the process are:
- The commissioners brief the delegation on the contents of the package in the fall;
- The delegation hosts a public hearing at Winchester Hall in December to hear from constituents;
- Once session begins, the delegation meets (on Fridays mornings) to discuss, debate, and decide whether to move forward with each bill in the commissioners' package;
- If a bill request garners five (5) affirmative votes, then it is drafted in the proper format and filed with the clerk of the House;
- Once filed, the bill is designated to one of the six standing committees, the step referred to as First Reading;
- The delegation chairman is notified of the committee hearing date, and provides the committee staff with a statement of the outcome of the delegation vote on the bill;
- The chairman coordinates witnesses coming to Annapolis to testify in support of the bill, and also provides background;
- After the hearing, assuming the bill is reported out of the committee favorably, the bill goes to Second Reading;
- After enough time for the print shop to prepare the final version, the bill passes Third Reading;
- The process is repeated in the Senate, and then the governor signs the bill into law;
- Throughout all of theses steps, everyone must be kept informed of what's happening, including the delegation, the commissioners, and the media
All of this assumes a perfect trip through this process, which is rare. Subtle pressure rests with the idea that the commissioners expect that their bills are all worthwhile and important, and believes that the delegation should pass the package in total.
This year, the commissioners sent a complex set of legislative issues to Annapolis. The timing is such that the outgoing commissioners adopted the legislative package, so the new board is put in a position to either adopt the previous board's initiatives, or try to cobble together new ideas without the time to think things through.
In this year's package, a few items stood out:
- Excise Tax- the commissioners sought approval of a transfer tax on the sale of existing real estate as a way to raise new revenue for older school rehabilitation. The bill was not popular with the delegation, particularly since the old commissioners passed a tax cut in the form of the decision to reduce the tax rate to the constant yield. Sen. David Brinkley (R., Frederick/Carroll) pointed out the hypocrisy of reducing a county-controlled tax rate in an election year and then asking the legislative to increase a different tax. The excise tax bill did not receive enough votes to move forward.
- Trash franchises - For many years, the county has struggled with the costs of operating the landfill and the curbside recycling program. Rural county residents contract with their own trash hauler, and there are a number of small companies that provide this service in different areas of the county. The commissioners asked for authority to set up a system of trash franchising, which would allow them to decide who collects trash where in throughout the county. The response was both swift and unenthusiastic. The delegation was inundated with negative email, more than I've seen on any other issue in four years as a delegate. Needless to say, this bill won't see a Second Reading.
- Ethics - Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson has advocated the adoption of strict ethics and disclosure legislation. In Lennie's view, campaign contributions from developers, realtors, lawyers, and land use consultants are proffered solely to influence public officials to vote for unrestrained and rampant growth. Setting aside the truth of that assertion, Lennie is convinced the only way to control the problem is to prohibit campaign contributions that might cause officials to vote for growth-related issues. Lennie's desire to constrain the development industry's political influence came up against one of the most politically powerful developers in the county, Del. Galen Clagett (D., Frederick). Galen, who has made it painfully clear that he is for ethics reform, thought it unfair to target only the development community with this contribution prohibition. All of the Frederick delegation members (except Del. Sue Hecht (D., Frederick), who wasn't here in 2003) were facing a political dilemma. All eight members of the delegation voted for an ethics bill in 2003, and it passed the House and Senate on an almost unanimous vote. When the bill got to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's desk, he issued a veto. Rampant speculation suggested various unknown hands that lobbied the governor to get the veto, but Senator Brinkley recently acknowledged communicating with Mr. Ehrlich's staff prior to the veto. In spite of the intrigue, an exit strategy is emerging, as Delegate Clagett has crafted an amendment that broadens the bill's provision on disclosing private discussions and contributions to anyone who communicates with a commissioner about a pending land use matter. The bill will apply to people who oppose zoning changes as well as the development community.
One of the more interesting aspects of legislative relations surrounds the passage of the spousal exclusion for the Board of Education. In Frederick County, the spouse of an employee of the public school system is prohibited from running for a seat on the elected Board of Education. Frederick is the only county in Maryland with that restriction. For several years, the board has sought a change from the delegation, asking that this restriction be lifted. This year was no different, as the bill is back in the Board of Education's package.
The bill hearing went well, at least until Senator Brinkley spoke up to address his desire to see the provision extended to cover the other counties. In the end, the bill to lift the restriction received six votes, one more than the minimum required to pass beyond the delegation.
Unfortunately, the two No votes came from our state senators. A quirk in the process is that a delegation bill has to pass both chambers in order to become law. In this case, the bill will probably sail through the House, but it will hit a dead stop in the Senate. With no senatorial advocate, this sucker is DOA with a do-not resuscitate tag taped to its toe.
Serving as delegation chairman may have a secondary, post-legislative career benefit. I may be qualified to serve as a ringleader for Barnum and Bailey, as long as I can avoid being eaten by the tigers!