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May 24, 2010

Our Delegation – How’d they do?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Next to stepping down early, one of the hardest things to do is to look back at the just-completed General Assembly session to score the Frederick delegation.


These columns were much easier to write as an insider to the process; the General Assembly is not necessarily friendly to the casual observer. In fact, one of the reasons that lobbyists make so much money is that they possess the ability to navigate the annual Annapolis information vacuum for their clients!


For the rest of us, especially those who can’t afford thousands of dollars to buy access or several hundred dollars for “real-time” updates, we’re stuck trying to follow the General Assembly via the Internet. That effort is akin to searching for a single strand of corn silk in Baker Park. While seemingly impossible, there is always a slight chance that you might come across what you need!


The legislative leaders appear interested in solving the problem; it’s just that it takes time – long, slow time! The Maryland General Assembly website gives one the chance to listen to live audio of the proceedings; which is sort of like being given the chance to listen to a speed-reader at an auction where 141 people are all talking at the same time.


Both House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D., Calvert/PG) are practiced at getting through a legislative calendar as quickly as they can with as little distraction as is humanly possible.


This requires a certain kind of legislative mumble, an almost-unintelligible jibber-jabber that a clerk can follow but excludes almost everyone else from understanding. Not to worry, the legislators really aren’t listening, either!


One of the best moments of any legislator’s career is when visitors come to Annapolis for the first time to sit in the Gallery to watch the session unfold. The first reaction is normally a comment about how impressive it all is; the second comment has to do with how little attention any of the legislators are actually paying to what is happening around them.


There is a move afoot to provide web-streaming video of the public hearings conducted by the House and Senate standing committees. This would be a ground-breaking step for the General Assembly, as the committee process has been as secretive as the nuclear launch codes during the Cold War.


So, the million-dollar question: How did our legislators do? It all depends on how you measure success.


The Board of County Commissioners uses a simple test to measure the delegation each year. They send a bunch of bills to Annapolis, and if most get passed, they consider the delegation successful. If not, then they bemoan the delegation’s lack of effectiveness.


Problem: Most of the bills they send shouldn’t pass, so their value judgment is really questionable. It would be fitting if the delegation was given the right to evaluate the effectiveness of the commissioners; otherwise, you should just ignore the commissioners’ legislative scorecard.


For example, the commissioners sent eight bills and two utterly meaningless policy statements to Annapolis this past session. Of those, the delegation chose to introduce two of the bills. Of those, only one actually passed and was signed into law.


So, how did our legislators do as a group? Every four years or so, The Gazette of Business and Politics ranks the delegates and senators. The idea of rating all 188 legislators is unthinkable, mostly because so many would fall into middle – not too effective, but not total basket cases either – that it only makes sense to focus on the top and bottom 20.


In the top 20 most effective, Frederick placed two, one in the Senate and one in the House. Sen. David Brinkley (R., Frederick/Carroll) once again garnered recognition from media, staff, and lobbyists as a go-to guy who can navigate the halls of power to achieve his objectives. Senator Brinkley has maintained an effective working relationship in a chamber known for thoughtful debate, clubby relationships, and the power of a handshake agreement.


Over in the more raucous House of Delegates, Del. Galen Clagett (D., Frederick) typifies a style of legislating from a bygone area. The undisputed champ of the grip-and-grin, Galen has risen through the ranks of Speaker Busch’s leadership process to secure a coveted spot as a subcommittee chair on the Appropriations Committee.


On the other end, sadly, a number of our other legislators found themselves on the bottom rungs of the legislative effectiveness ladder. Unfairly, Del. Charles Jenkins (R., Frederick/Washington) was listed among the less effective, but come on! The guy took office the week session started, thanks to a certain early retirement. How could anyone expect him to navigate in 90 days what takes most delegates four years to figure out?


Friends in the House emailed me the morning that Charles stood on the Floor for the first time and clarified a vexing point on education funding mandates that helped the Montgomery County delegation get an important local bill passed. That kind of help will be long remembered.


Not so for Sen. Alex Mooney (R., Frederick/Washington). Senator Mooney’s take is that if being an outsider who can’t get his bills passed by liberal Democrats is what causes him to be listed as ineffective, then so be it. He’s proud to wear legislative inaction in Annapolis as a badge of honor if it means that his success is even partially hinged on cooperating with liberals.


Two notable events from the 2010 session: Del. Don Elliott (R., Frederick/Carroll) was honored by the House with the “Mac” Mathias Award, which is given to a legislator who distinguishes themselves by acting in a bi-partisan manner on a regular basis. Don is a class act, an expert on healthcare issues, and one of the nicest guys I know. I had breakfast with him almost every day for most of my time in Annapolis, and I still miss those talks.


Del C. Sue Hecht (D., Frederick) announced she would not seek re-election after this term. Sue has a long history of service, known as a fighter for issues that matter to her. She has been a recognized leader on domestic violence, victim’s rights and alternative energy. While Sue and I disagreed on many issues, I always respected the way she conducted her business.


So, now the delegation members (minus Sue) shift from their role as legislators into campaign mode. No doubt much will be made of their effectiveness, particularly if current members of the Board of County Commissioners decide to run for state office against some of them. As shown above, take the commissioners’ claims about effectiveness with a grain of salt. The delegation is an important Constitutional mechanism to stop some really stupid ideas from becoming law, and it is working.


So, are they effective? It depends on what you mean by it. Regardless, they’re yours. The only test of effectiveness that really matters is coming up this September and November.


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