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April 7, 2008

The Yin and the Yang of Annapolis

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

This place is really odd. There is just no more appropriate one-word definition. We begin our legislative session in middle of winter’s icy grip, and we end it in all of spring’s emerging glory.


The walk from the House office building to the historic State Capitol is an exercise in bundling up and hunkering down for the first month and a half of session. Lobbyists tend to stick to the main indoor lobby of the Capitol building, warm and cozy in their pursuit of the legislator’s ears.


The last two weeks of the session finds most lobbying professionals standing outside, many gathering around the base of the large stone stairway or up on the portico. The smell of dogwood flowers and wild cherry blossoms seems to create a welcoming atmosphere for detailed discussions about getting those last-minute bills passed.


The same dichotomy applies to the pace of legislative action. The first month and a half are taken up by social events, dinners, receptions, and meet-and-greets. Bills are still being drafted and dropped in the hopper, so floor sessions are short, and committee meetings focus on policy briefings.


In contrast, the last few weeks are a blur. Thousands of bills are being rushed through the process, sponsors and lobbyists are begging for votes, and committee chairmen revel in the most obvious opportunity to exercise their immense power.


The most important example of how people and circumstances operate differently is also the least obvious and most subtle. Pick up any newspaper around the state and read any article on the General Assembly.


What will immediately become obvious is the influence of partisan politics on the legislative process. Democrats control most aspects of the process, and Republicans have mastered the art of dissension.


Forget the four years of the Ehrlich Administration; it now seems like an anomaly. As hopeful as Republicans were for meaningful change, whatever change there was was fleeting at best.


The two partisan caucus groups have become the means through which to influence votes in the chamber and in committee. The Democrats use their caucus to issue dictums from the speaker and the governor; while the Republicans use caucus meetings to form the positions of the loyal opposition.


Dissension is not tolerated, and bad behavior is definitely punished. Sen. James Brochin (D., Baltimore Co.), a two-term moderate Democrat who voted against the Senate budget plan (along with most of the Republican Senators), was rewarded with a relocation. His seat was shifted to the back row of the Senate Chamber, a location reserved for freshman senators.


In the House, the pain is much more severe. Any Republican (and since all Republicans voted no, that means all 37) who voted against the House version of the budget has had all of their capital bond project funding eliminated. For the county delegations that are majority or totally composed of GOP members, they’ll get no bond projects this year.


Frederick turns out to be fortunate to have a couple of loyal Democrats in our delegation. Delegates Galen Clagett and Sue Hecht were awarded bond project funding for both the Montevue/Citizen’s nursing home replacement project and the Weinberg Center restoration project.


In a retrospectively brilliant maneuver, the bond project to complete the funding of the Agriculture/Education Complex west of Frederick on Route 340 was shifted over to the Senate, to be funded out of their bond allocation. In so doing, that project, in a Republican district (3B), avoided the speaker’s wrath.


Another classic example: The Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on higher education recommended cutting more than a million dollars from the University System of Maryland regional center at Hagerstown.


This facility, originally funded and supported by the legislature, is located in the heart of downtown Hagerstown and is essential to the Hub City’s plans for revitalization. A million dollar cut essentially guts the program and calls into question the logic of even trying to keep it open.


Del. LeRoy Myers (R., Washington), the chairman of his county’s delegation, immediately raised concerns, and requested the subcommittee consider an amendment to protect the USM-Hagerstown funding. He succeeded in getting people back home to send hundreds of emails to the General Assembly to demonstrate their interest.


The subcommittee summarily rejected Delegate Myers’ amendment. Two days later, during the second reader debate in the House chamber, Del. John Donoghue (D., Washington) offered the exact same thing. In an amazing shift of opinion, the subcommittee chair accepted Delegate Donoghue’s amendment and went so far as to praise the delegate for this leadership and passionate concern for higher education in Western Maryland.


So, where’s the Yang? Where is the bi-partisan cooperation? It exists in a hopeful example for the future of the Maryland General Assembly in the form of the Health & Government Operations (HGO) Committee.


One of six standing committees in the House of Delegates, HGO stands as a beacon of congeniality, healthy policy discussion, and bi-partisan effort focused on making Maryland a healthier state.


Chairman Pete Hammen (D., Baltimore City) leads a team of subcommittee chairs who have distinguished themselves for two things – subject matter expertise and the recognition that Democrats and Republicans can work together to craft high-quality policy outcomes.


This isn’t meant to suggest that when an issue divides along historically partisan lines that the Democrats don’t stick to their side and the Republicans don’t do the same. Abortion, taxes, guns, and same sex marriage are the most obvious examples, and the lines are as you’d expect.


Beyond that, the level of cooperation on this committee stands a stark and encouraging example of how policy work can inure to the benefit of citizens when policy matters more than politics. I serve on the Government Operations Subcommittee, the group that is the best example of this cooperative spirit. Chairman Dan Morhaim (D., Baltimore Co.), a medical doctor by profession, has established a well-earned reputation as an expert on the subject of state procurement.


From my first day on his subcommittee, Chairman Morhaim has involved me in the most minor and intricate details of procurement policy development. He has the vision to see well beyond the typical ideological barriers, and the interest in seeing that billions of dollars in taxpayer’s resources are spent in a wise and thoughtful manner.


Delegate Morhaim’s actions reflect the attitude of Chairman Hammen’s overall management of the HGO committee. We argue aggressively for our own positions, but always in a courteous and civil manner. Dissension is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. Pete Hammen sees that an enthusiastic debate leads us to a better outcome; and, in a practical sense, getting Republicans on board makes the eventual floor debate in the chamber less problematic.


The most obvious demonstration of this is the unanimous committee vote to dramatically expand our state Medicaid program during the recent special session. Every Republican on the committee was involved in understanding how this expansion would eventually reduce healthcare expenses funded by Maryland taxpayers, so every Republican voted for the expansion. Other GOP members aggressively opposed the bill on the Floor, but the HGO Republicans stood in lockstep to do the right thing.


A legislative session brings out the best and worst of the political process. Strong-arm tactics, threats, pork barrel payoffs for votes, and strict partisan positions just because the “Party” says so are the Yin


The Yang is the HGO Committee, and I’m very thankful that my six years of experience has been on this committee. There is still hope for our state!


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