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January 19, 2009

General Assembly Journal 2009 Volume 3

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The 426th Session of the Maryland General Assembly opened at noon last Wednesday. The normal pomp and ceremony seemed somehow muted, likely due to the budget storm clouds on the Annapolis horizon.


Notable among the pile of invitations to luncheons, receptions and dinners are a number of expressions of regret over scaled back shindigs. One example from the University System of Maryland apologizes for canceling the normal sit-down luncheon due to budgetary constraints.


It isn't just the parties and cocktail receptions, either. In his pre-session press gathering, Gov. Martin O'Malley made it clear that layoffs, not just the already announced furloughs, will be an unavoidable outcome for state workers this year.


Layoffs of the state white collar workforce are nothing like layoffs in the auto or construction industry. Once the affected employee is let go, there will not be any plan to re-hire them when the economy rebounds. The decision is final.


Another priority of the governor is the abolition of the death penalty. Hailed by many as either inhuman or unjust, Mr. O'Malley got exactly what he wanted from his death penalty study group. Hand-selected and reflecting the governor's own policy bias, the panel recommended ending the practice in Maryland.


The problem isn't that we have a death statute in Maryland; the problem is that we don't use it enough!


It looks like the governor has found a solution, though. He may, if he cannot round up the votes to pass a bill to abolish it outright, seek a referendum to take the question to the voters of Maryland in 2010.


He'll argue that if the legislature trusts voters to decide slot machines, then why not let them vote on the death penalty?


Opening week saw a number of committee assignment shifts. One news report attributes at least some of the changes to my decision to disaffiliate from the partisan political process. So much for all of those who said my decision would have no bearing on the legislative process, huh?


The state budget seems to overshadow almost every other policy discussion. This year will be remembered as the session of lowered expectations, unfulfilled promises, and risks for Maryland's most vulnerable citizens.


Another policy argument involves a proposal from several legislators to change the way the state provides trauma Medevac services. Two senators, John Astle (D., Anne Arundel) and E.J. Pipkin (R., Caroline/Cecil/Kent/Queen Anne’s) are advocating a plan to split the State Police Aviation Command into two distinct missions, one related to law enforcement (search & rescue/homeland security), the other related to the medical flight mission.


The law enforcement mission would remain the sole purview of the MSP, while the medical mission would be opened to competition from private companies. The procurement standards would be established based on FAA criteria for both flight operations and maintenance.


The idea is that the MSP could submit a bid alongside these private Medevac companies, and the best and most compliant bid would win. In a perfect world, this kind of public sector competition against private industry results in cost savings without sacrificing service quality.


In this case, though, it seems that the initial criteria may place the State Police in a disadvantageous position. Currently, they are not required to meet those FAA criteria. The state budget has never provided them the necessary resources to upgrade personnel, equipment, and standards to those levels, in spite of numerous requests from them over the years.


To set that threshold now, under the guise of improving service and safety, seems patently unfair and agenda-driven. A better approach would be to set a multi-year timeline to implement a fair and comparable basis under which to award a competitive contract.


That way, Maryland gets the best of both worlds – lower cost and high quality service; and the state police aviation command has every reasonable chance to compete to keep the work.


* * * * * * * * * *


Opening week ended on a very sad and tragic note. My Carroll County friend, Del. Don Elliott (R., Carroll/Frederick), lost his beloved wife and partner, Jeanne. She was a wonderful woman, a registered and active pharmacist, and a friend to anyone lucky enough to get to know her.


Don and I have breakfast together every morning I stay in Annapolis, a tradition we both look forward to each year. We serve together on the Health Committee, and we discuss complex health policy issues every morning over oatmeal or eggs.


My heart aches for my friend, his sons, and the idea that he has lost his most precious and treasured gift. Those breakfasts will take on a new meaning this year, with us all reminded once again about the importance of never taking life or love for granted.


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