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November 21, 2007

General Assembly Journal Special Session 2007 Part -3

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

No amount of prognostication could have seen the mess that this special session became. Called by Gov. Martin O’Malley to address the structural deficit, we found ourselves in the midst of a political test of wills between the House and Senate.

We’re back to the Two Mikes, House Speaker Michael Busch (Anne Arundel) and Senate President Mike Miller (PG/Calvert). We’ve been there before, and the outcomes were both very difficult to predict and usually left a bloody mess on the floor.

You’ve seen the Senate’s work, I wrote extensively a week ago on how the Senate revised the governor’s legislative requests. The bills were totally reworked, reflecting the unique political dynamic alive in the State Senate.

What I was unable, through a foggy lack of sleep, to incorporate into that column was how extensive the House changes were to the governor’s initiatives.

The easiest way to discuss the differences is to place them side-by-side.

The numbers don’t really tell the special session story, though. The behind-the-scenes political manipulation was much more interesting.

The various proposals (the governor’s, the Senate, and the House) were very complex and interrelated. One can’t help but wonder whether it was an accidental or an intentional phenomenon.

I’m a skeptic, so I’m inclined to believe that these bills are specifically drafted to be dependent on one another. The logic was that you can’t have the good stuff without the bad, that swallowing the poison facilitates the consumption of the honey.

Normally, the State House environment is such that the members remain fairly loyal to their partisan affiliations, on both sides of the aisle. This special session threw the normal conventions out the window, with personal political interests and survival playing a much more prominent role.

Case in point: Senate Republicans announced weeks ago that they were in lock-step opposition to any vote to expand gaming in Maryland during the special session. Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley (R., Frederick/Carroll) was widely quoted expressing his disgust at the rushed and random nature of a special session, and suggesting that slots gaming deserved to be considered during the regular January-April session.

House Republicans marveled at this show of loyalty, something much harder to achieve in the less stately environment of the lower Chamber. Remember, after all, they’re the House of Lords; we’re the House of Commons.

So the governor’s constitutional referendum bill took the question of expanding gaming to the voters of Maryland in November 2008, during the presidential election balloting, and tied funding of major new programs and initiatives to the passage of slot machine gambling.

One might even posit that without a successful slots referendum, this whole special session would collapse. Senate President Miller twice suggested that if a slots bill doesn’t proceed, he’d adjourn the Senate, effectively scuttling the special session and Governor O’Malley’s hopes for budget and spending increases. He felt that without slots, the other promises would come up empty. And he’s right!

So, last week, the Senate dealt with several bills in a marathon of debate and voting. An attempted filibuster was dispatched easily, and so it came down to the voting. The slots referendum has always been an iffy proposition, not one I’d be compelled to bet on.

Liberals hate that poor – and less-educated – people seem drawn to gambling, although I still think that’s an emotional not factual argument. As the votes were being cast, Senate President Miller was visibly concerned. There weren’t enough Democratic votes to pass the bill. The big tote board showed them two votes shy of a constitutional majority.

The whole deal, all of O’Malley’s plans, the tax increases and the school construction, major transportation projects, and healthcare expansion, were hanging in the balance. Instead of some anti-slots liberal members changing their votes to protect their governor in his hour of need, the two votes necessary to salvage the whole deal came from Republican senators. Sen. George Edwards (R., Garrett/Allegany), Sen. Don Munson (R., Washington/Allegany), and Sen. Rich Colburn (R., Talbot/Dorchester/Caroline) all voted to approve the referendum.

You might think that made them the enemy. Not in my book. These three all believed that their strong arguments in favor of slots under the Ehrlich Administration put them in a position to look like foolish hypocrites if they failed to support a slots initiative. That logic makes sense to me.

This was one of those times where the personal political perspective took precedence over the partisan loyalty expectation. It wasn’t the only time that happened this past week, either.

In the House, we were expected to start work early on Saturday, gearing up for a very long day and night of legislating. It turned out to be a very long day, but most of it was spent of whipping, not voting.

The rumored session, scheduled to begin at 11A.M., didn’t actually get underway until the late afternoon. That trend continued throughout the tax debate, and carried through to the referendum on slots in the House.

It seemed to take forever for the bill’s floor leaders to round up the necessary votes. In fact, just adding up the hours spent waiting for a quorum call, I think we spent well over 18 hours just sitting around awaiting the bells.

A reporter tells me that by his math, the cost of this special session through Sunday the 18th was over $600,000 dollars.

The House has now passed the constitutional referendum bill. I joined four other Republicans and 81 Democrats in voting for the referendum. My logic is twofold:

1.) I worked really hard to get Frederick removed as a location. In light of that effort, it would have been disingenuous to then oppose the bill.

2.) I strongly supported 15,000 slot machines at up to five locations throughout the four years of the Ehrlich Administration. The differences were slight, with more money going to racing and equine services in the Ehrlich bills, and more money going to education in the O’Malley plan.

The lobbying effort to get me to “toe the line” and vote against the referendum was as intense as any I have ever seen in my six years here.

I received several hundred emails from Republicans all over Maryland; oddly enough none came from my own district. That either means that this effort was locally focused in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County (where most originated), or my own constituents just weren’t on board with this rallying effort.

Here’s an example of an email I received from a Baltimore County Republican (exactly as I received it): Dear Del Weldon:

Lets hope that this is your last session in Office. You have yielded to the Dems . Again is it any wonder that we Repubs are called the Stupid Party

Man there is NO budget on the table, the slots $$ is to be used for New spending and NOT to fix the deficit at all!

What are you thinking? Thnaks for abandoning the party. The people will speak next election and you will be gone. What did Mike Miller promise you? Chairmanship of what,, the Land Fill

That was a nice one; several were much worse; most were very personal and mean-spirited. Just as many of these notes were completely and totally false. Many people suggested that by voting for the referendum, I helped facilitate the tax increases.

An absolute falsehood, no truth to the statement. There is no rational connection regarding passage of the tax increases and the slots referendum. In fact, Senate President Miller even dismissed this supposed connection when he spoke to the Senate and said that the tax bills would pass regardless of the House action on the slots bill.

The Democrats wanted to add revenue. Taxes are the most direct and obvious way to do that. Slots are easy, relatively speaking. These guys really didn’t care about the slots bill, though. If it had failed, the spending plans for healthcare, education, and transportation would simply have been cut back, or other tax proposals would have been added.

An interesting aspect of this debate conveniently ignored by Republicans, who want to maintain their grasp on fantasy, is that the slots referendum would have failed had all 37 Republicans voted against it. Like the fantasy of a collapse of the whole special session, this little dream is so much B.S. After the vote, several Democrats from Montgomery County indicated that they were the “standbys,” the handful of votes necessary to ensure passage if all of the Republicans had voted against it.

So, not wanting to be hypocrite, and recognizing my consistent history of supporting slot machine gaming under the past Republican gubernatorial administration, it seemed logical and reasonable to support a constitutional amendment that would allow the voters of Maryland to settle an issue that the General Assembly appears to lack the intellect, or intestinal fortitude (or both), to resolve for the last several years.

The State Republican Party organization suggests that I have betrayed the cause and am disloyal. Ignoring the fact that removing Frederick County as a location for slot machine gaming mattered considerably more to my voters than the efficacy of the state party and their apparatchiks, I specifically informed the House GOP leadership of my intentions to cast a vote that might run counter to the party position.

It was a vote that reflected the priorities and interests of my constituents, the people who sent me here to work on their behalf. So far, I have voted against every tax increase that has been proposed; I voted for the chance for Marylanders to vote on whether they want slot machines; and I have voted to provide health insurance for 100,000 children and adults classified as the “working poor.”

Overall, I feel pretty good about my work on behalf of my constituents. They know I’m not a hypocrite; and they know that I place their interests and needs ahead of partisan interests.

I’m okay with that!

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

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