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BY COLUMNISTS

| Joe Charlebois | Guest Columnist | Harry M. Covert | Norman M. Covert | Ken Kellar | Patricia A. Kelly | Edward Lulie III | Tom McLaughlin | Patricia Price | Cindy A. Rose | Richard B. Weldon Jr. |

DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


October 29, 2007

Special Sessions: Not So Special Anymore

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The Constitution of Maryland acknowledges that a 90-day annual legislative session limitation may necessitate additional meetings. An unexpected crisis, a major disaster, or some other unpredictable situation might necessitate bringing legislators back to the State Capitol.

Under the express powers of Maryland's governor, the Constitution allows that he may order the General Assembly to convene outside of the second Wednesday in January, the normal beginning of a session. He must issue an executive order specifying the reason(s) for the call.

Presumably, this order to convene is the result of extraordinary circumstances. During former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's term he found two reasons to request this unusual solution.

First, medical doctors were facing rapidly increasing premiums for malpractice insurance. Governor Ehrlich criss-crossed Maryland, meeting with health care providers in search of a solution.

In his view, the best way to solve the malpractice crisis was to make it harder to sue doctors, a typically conservative, long-term solution that found few supporters in the liberal-dominated legislature. One universal axiom seems to be that most doctors blame the problem on lawyers and frivolous lawsuits, while most lawyers blame bad doctors.

The plain truth turns out somewhere in between; there are some bad doctors, and there are a lot of unnecessary lawsuits where aggressive lawyers encourage "lottery-style" judgments against innocent doctors.

Governor Ehrlich's plan to solve the medical malpractice problem didn't survive the first two hours of the special session. Before the Ehrlich plan ever had a public hearing, Speaker Mike Busch (D. Anne Arundel) produced his own solution.

The Busch solution involved adding a tax to Health Maintenance Organization insurance policies. The additional revenue could be used by doctors to cover the malpractice premium increase.

Senate President Mike Miller (D., PG-Calvert) also liked the Busch approach better than the Ehrlich solution, perhaps because Senator Miller also happens to be a trial attorney when he's not presiding over the Senate.

The Busch plan is the one that passed. Governor Ehrlich uncapped his veto pen, alarmed that a new tax would masquerade as a solution when nothing was done to address the real underlying problem.

Within two years, Governor Ehrlich, in spite of the malpractice experience, involved the Special Session Article again. This time, the proposed 75% residential electric rate increase from Baltimore Gas & Electric was the motivation.

Having learned that not involving the legislative leaders in a solution could be problematic, he sought some form of compromise on his plan. He used Public Service Commission Chairman and former Delegate Ken Schisler as his front man in negotiations.

Unfortunately, the PSC and the Ehrlich Administration were also publicly supporting the merger of BG&E and Constellation Energy. The Democrat leadership, along with organized labor and progressive policy advocates, found it an easy target to sell to voters looking for an enemy. Why allow a merger of this company and an increase in electric rates when executives stood to make great personal financial gains?

PSC Chairman Schisler was called every name in the book, from a crook (absurd) to someone who is anti-environment (just plain stupid). You see, unions and progressive advocacy groups aren't worried about the truth, just in getting their story out.

So again, a special session, called by the governor without a specific consensus solution, devolved into a partisan policy fight. Governor Ehrlich watched his preferred solution turn into a legislative power grab. He found the outcome so objectionable that he once again vetoed the resulting bill.

So, the special session batting average favored the House and Senate leaders, not the governor. Two Ehrlich-ordered sessions, two vetoes, and two veto overrides.

One would expect current Gov. Martin O'Malley to be a student of this process. Not only was he Baltimore's mayor during the two special sessions, he was an active and engaged co-conspirator to help the two Mike's kill Ehrlich's plans.

In light of this, one might expect a more organized and fully-developed solution before Governor O'Malley would issue his own special session call to deal with the budget crisis.

In the category of more confidence than common sense, Governor O'Malley issued the call with no evidence of a legislative consensus. Senate President Miller, recognizing the governor's support of slot machine gaming, seized the chance to form a partnership. Senator Miller called for a special session, adding his voice to the governor and at least forming the impression of the framework for a deal.

House Speaker Busch continued to play slots spoiler, suggesting it would be better to wait for the regular January convening of the General Assembly.

Slots opponents, fearing that the moral objection card had been played out, leapt on the Speaker's suggestion as a way to splinter the pro-slots juggernaut.

Rumors of a possible compromise were floated, most involving the "referendum" solution. While many legislators treasure this gutless method of avoiding difficult votes, President Miller despises it as it related to slots. He knows enough about the influence of issue and advocacy groups to know that in the halls of power of Annapolis, he rules. Out in the boondocks of Maryland, church pastors and deacons have more sway over the electorate than a bunch of State House power brokers.

In fact, the only thing he hates worse than a slots referendum is the fact that all Senate Republicans are planning to vote against slots in the special session. This would make his job much tougher, some say impossible, this in spite of the obvious flip-flop of any Republican legislator who had previously voted to support slot machine gaming under former Governor Ehrlich. If it was wise policy under a Republican Administration, then those who oppose it for purely political reasons are going to look a little suspect now.

Now President Miller is forced to mine for votes among the Senate Democratic Caucus, not a hotbed of strong gambling proponents. It remains to be seen if he can find the votes.

So, notwithstanding all of that, the governor issued his call, and the General Assemble will convene today in Annapolis.

House Speaker Busch seems unenthusiastic about a special session that he felt was unnecessary all along. Senate President Miller held a press conference immediately following the O'Malley announcement and told the assembled press that the governor was making a big mistake calling the session without a consensus.

Remember, just a few weeks ago Senator Miller applauded the governor for suggesting a special session; now he seems opposed. Might his opposition have something to do with Sen. David Brinkley's announcement about his caucuses' position on the slots proposal?

One of two things will happen: either Governor O'Malley will use the power of his office to garner enough Democrats to support his plans, or this special session will collapse under the weight of competing interests, partisan ideology, and political egos.

Anyone care to wager a guess?



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