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As Long as We Remember...

March 17, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 Volume 4

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Less than four weeks to go, and some of the biggest battles remain to be fought. Seems odd, but it’s completely natural in Annapolis.


While the committees have dealt with thousands of issues, the most divisive challenges have been reserved for the final days of this session. This is not an accident; this delaying tactic is purely intentional. The later in session these issues come to the floor of the House and the Senate, the greater the chance that important policy bills are put at risk if ideologues try to play legislative games with these controversial issues.


Gay Marriage – Bills to dissolve the institution of marriage are languishing in House and Senate committees. Similarly, bills to create civil relationships that grant denied legal rights are also being held back. All of the bills will probably make it out of committee in some form. Counter proposals to amend the Constitution to bar same-sex marriage are also languishing, although it’s not likely those ideas will gain enough support to make it to the two chambers.


Computer Services Sales Tax – One of the worst outcomes of the last fall’s special session was the addition of the computer services sales tax. This $250 million expansion of taxation resulted from backroom deals struck between legislative leaders and Gov. Martin O’Malley; and the very folks who would be impacted by this were denied the chance to testify about the impact of this proposal.


Republican legislators argued that the computer tax would be damaging to business. That would be especially true with the technology sector that has been so important to Frederick’s economic success. In spite of those warnings, the computer tax passed along party lines.


Now, Governor O’Malley and the legislative leaders have come to the same realization. In light of the stalling national economy, a “tech tax” doesn’t make sense.


Instead of simply acknowledging that the tax was a mistake, and adjusting the fiscal belt a notch or two tighter, the revenue brain trust has decided to further increase the upper income tax bracket, targeting wealthy Maryland residents with an additional income tax increase. That vote will be coming shortly, and I promise you’ll hear a lot more about the tech tax going away than you will about the new income tax increase!


Prince Georges County Hospital has been on the verge of collapse for several years. Several attempts to shovel ever-increasing piles of state cash into the front doors of the hospital have failed, including a midnight effort during the last General Assembly session.


Now, it looks as if another attempt is being cobbled together. This one includes tens of millions of dollars, doled out over a number of years, conditioned on a new owner stepping up and taking charge of the hospital system. Without Prince Georges Hospital, thousands of emergency room patients will be shuttled to other hospitals, none of which have the capacity to deal with their own populations, much less the high percentage of medical assistance patients who obtain their care from PG Hospital.


Not too controversial, unless, of course, a multi-million dollar handout to a perpetually failing hospital system without remotely addressing the underlying problem concerns you. Until we get on top of the uncompensated care issue, no one will be able to turn PG Hospital into a world class medical system. All of the chips are stacked against them.


Abortion – No review of delayed action on controversial issues would be complete without a discussion of abortion.


House Bill 1146 is the hidden agenda this year. The bill title is: Limited Pregnancy Center – Disclaimer. Sounds innocuous enough, huh?


Here’s what the bill does. It requires that facilities that meet the definition of “limited pregnancy center” would have to add a series of official disclaimers to the services they provide. These facilities are not medical clinics; they are intended to offer very limited services, such as pregnancy testing, ultrasound, and access to subsidized prenatal care.


What they really provide lies at the heart of the strong and passionate objection to their very existence. They provide a caring, nurturing, and spiritual alternate to Planned Parenthood’s preference to abort pregnancies when that seems the appropriate outcome. Sadly, instead of the murder of an unborn child being truly the last resort, the numbers suggest that it’s much higher on the priority list at government-funded family planning facilities.


The advocates for the bill are Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League, or NARAL. The bill would require that these centers provide a written disclosure to all of their clients that the center is:


1) Not a medical facility; and

2) Not subject to regulation by the state or local health department; and

3) Not qualified to offer any medical counseling or advice.


Further, they’d be required to ensure that a client had been seen by a qualified medical doctor before the center could offer any advice or counsel.


Frederick County is in the center of this debate. The CareNet Pregnancy Center is located very close to the local Planned Parenthood office. The local CareNet Center has an OB/GYN on staff as the medical director. She oversees and trains the local staff and is very careful to be sure that the volunteers and professional staff operate within Maryland law.


The counselors who work at the CareNet center are motivated by their own personal values and faith to assist pregnant women to deal with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. They definitely don’t do abortions, and they probably do what they can to discourage the procedure.


Abortions have lasting consequences, physical and emotional. These centers focus on abortion alternatives, and try to offer advice about those very consequences.


The bill is co-sponsored by a number of Montgomery County delegates. There are probably enough liberal/progressive members of the health committees to vote the bill out to the full House and Senate.


In an ironic twist, the legislative leaders probably don’t want the bill to come out of committee. A floor fight on the issue of abortion is guaranteed to do two things. First, it divides the House membership in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Pro-life Democrats, combined with the normally meager GOP membership, constitutes a significant voting block.


The Speaker of the House hates unpredictability. The abortion debate is fraught with passion and emotion, and having those factors in play in the legislature is very problematic.


The second aspect of the House debate is that a divisive and emotional debate like abortion ties up every other bill behind it. Considering the dwindling clock, any issue that consumes significant amounts of floor time jeopardizes the rest of the work of the House. That doesn’t even consider the fact that the state Senate can kill a bill on filibuster, a technique denied the members of the House.


These big issues hang like an anvil over the House in the final weeks. Any one of them could bring the machine to a screeching halt.


Come to think of it, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all!


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