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April 14, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2008 Volume 9

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

 – Part 1 – Too Much Work, Too Little Time


It never ceases to amaze. The Maryland General Assembly Session is 90 days long, as defined in the state constitution. Legislators are summoned to Annapolis on the second Wednesday of January every year. At that moment, the 90-day session seems almost eternal, the thought of time away from home and family adds burden to those long winter nights.


Early in the session, most of the time is spent party-hopping. Receptions, dinners, briefings, and stand-up buffets abound. One past Frederick County legislator was overheard to fuss that if it weren’t for the evening cocktail receptions and their steam trays overflowing with all manner of food, he’d never eat. Poor wittle wegiswator!


This is the annual Sine Die journal entry, the wrap-up of all things important and trivial that occurs in the mad rush to conclude the state’s legislative business for another year. This year was special, a kind of extended stay for Maryland’s legislative branch of government.


Last year’s special session (lacking a better term, we’ll just call it Tax Hell) added three long weeks to the regular 90-day session. Gov. Martin O’Malley summoned the General Assembly into action from late October to mid-November, presumably to solve the state’s projected deficit.


What would normally be a fairly quiet time in Annapolis, the run-up to the holidays, was instead a flurry of activity for staffers, lobbyists, and legislators. The path chosen by the governor and legislative leaders to balance the budget led to historic tax increases, never an easy route for elected officials. Dozens of moderate to conservative Democrat legislators were forced to bite the bullet and vote tax increases they would normally oppose.


The arm-twisting led to some very strained relations, compounded by the fact that the regular 90-day session was just around the corner. The first few days of the General Assembly session, normally marked by smiles, hugs, and handshakes from a 9-month hiatus, were replaced by grumbles and under-breath muttering about bad tax votes.


A Republican-led lawsuit over the constitutional process violations during the special session added a little spice to the already tense atmosphere, since the object of the GOP legal action was to overturn all of those bad tax votes. Talk about your recipe for disaster. The Democrats, who were forced to “take one for the team,” risked having their GOP counterparts claim the hero role by having the courts toss out the taxes anyway.


As if that weren’t enough, the economic forecasting that underlies the state’s budget estimating process was showing some very bleak signs. Every revenue forecast being done at the start of the session showed a dramatic drop in expected receipts. Once again, those pesky Republicans had predicted that raising taxes outside of the normal budgeting process might result in tax increases that were insufficient to close the true budget gap.


The leadership in a one-party dominated legislature simply cannot stand it when the minority is correct in their political predictions. One-party rule depends on the power relationship as the method of controlling both votes and messaging. Having to admit the other guy is right weakens that grip on the process.


In order to limit media and voter expectations, Governor O’Malley wisely set a fairly unambitious legislative agenda. The trauma of the Tax Hell that was the special session meant that he couldn’t anticipate strong voting coalitions on major policy initiatives.


He did set a few priorities, though. He wanted to pass groundbreaking environmental legislation, a sweeping limit on greenhouse gas emissions that would led the national movement toward restricting smokestack emissions. He also wanted to see an expansion of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.


He also wanted to pass a mandatory DNA collection bill, one that would require that any person charged with a violent crime would have to surrender a DNA sample. These samples would be maintained in a database by the state police, only to be destroyed if the person were acquitted of the crime.


In the area of education, Governor O’Malley proposed extending his tuition freeze, requiring the state university system to shelve proposed tuition hikes and substituting a taxpayer subsidy in its place.


His other education priority was simpler and more personal. Using his personal news source (Baltimore’s Sun) to soften the public up, Governor O’Malley made clear his dislike for State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, and his intention to terminate her as soon as he wrestled away control of the State Board of Education.


Finally, Governor O’Malley sought a solution to the Baltimore Gas and Electric legal action over rate-setting. BG&E felt they were getting the shaft over Public Service Commission rulings on rates and on the costs to dismantle the old nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs.


As always, the legislative leaders, Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, had their own ideas. Speaker Busch wanted to further his efforts to expand healthcare to all Marylanders, and President Miller still hadn’t abandoned hope of a shortcut to his beloved slot machine solution.


Additionally, all three of these guys understood the political penalty associated with the special session. Too many taxes too soon spelled trouble for 2010, and like a spectre in the mist, former GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich keeps reminding people that he “said so” in 2007.


Next week, we’ll look at how Governor O’Malley did, along with the legislative leaders. We’ll also review the work (such as it was) of the Frederick County Delegation, a mixed bag to be sure.


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

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