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| Guest Columnist | Harry M. Covert | Hayden Duke | Jason Miller | Ken Kellar | Patricia A. Kelly | Edward Lulie III | Cindy A. Rose | Richard B. Weldon Jr. | Brooke Winn |


Advertise on the Tentacle

January 17, 2011

Play the cards we’re dealt – Part One

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The title conjures images of felt-covered tables, cigar smoke, and classic bluffs with an empty hand. Take away the cigars thanks to political correctness, replace the felt tables with marble hallways, and you have the challenge faced by the new Frederick County legislative delegation.


Thoughts this time of year naturally turn to Annapolis and the convening of the 428th Maryland General Assembly. Seems like only yesterday, but the weekly General Assembly Journal articles on that began back in 2002 closed the final chapter over a year ago.


Those articles were intended as a loving tribute to a very special experience, namely the chance to serve as a member of the state legislature, debating and defining the major issues of the day.


A whole new class of legislators, including a very high percentage of first-time delegates and senators, will be struggling to hire staff, make family plans, and learn the ropes of a multi-member deliberative body.


There are a few resources out there. The General Assembly leaders have prepared a few tools to assist our novice legislators in getting up to speed quickly. There are manuals on ethics, how to draft a bill and extensive rules of procedure that highlight the actual legislative process. Think Schoolhouse Rocks “How a Bill Becomes a Law” for grownups.


Some will actually read this stuff, and will be prepared for (or at least aware of) why things happen the way they do.


Unfortunately, many won’t. They’ll end up looking like lost balls in tall grass, stumbling blindly through the 90-day session like hungry sheep in a herd headed for the feed trough. To say the pace of a legislative session is fast is like saying a Civil War artillery cannon makes a little pop.


The real problem with being unprepared for the pace and the process is that there is no time to study the issues. A typical delegate or senator will receive several tons of studies, reports, notebooks, research papers, articles and policy analyses on hundreds of different issues during the 90-day session.


Reading all of that is a physical impossibility, but knowing which to read is a critical skill.


If a freshman legislator is focused on learning how a bill becomes law, then they won’t have time to study the intricacies of tax policy, healthcare delivery, environmental regulation or public education.


Past General Assembly Journal articles on described the lull early in the session. The bill drafting and filing process consumes most of the first 18-22 days, so lobbyists and special interest groups fill the void with parties and receptions. While admittedly frivolous, it does afford rookies the chance to network and socialize with colleagues while also getting to know the Annapolis chattering class. That will come in handy when it comes time to solicit funds for future campaigns.


Coin of the realm, so to speak. At least our poor legislators have the opportunity to eat without it costing them their $29 per day per diem!


That first few weeks is the only real downtime on the legislative calendar. Once bills are filed and receive their First Reading (go look it up in past General Assembly Journals or high school civics notes), the committee process begins in earnest. Legislators will literally spend their afternoons sitting through bill hearings, marathons of presentations and testimony on a wide array of topics.


This year promises an exciting new twist on the committee process, at least for the House of Delegates. For the first time, committee hearings will be available for live viewing, thanks to web cams installed in each of the six committee rooms in the Casper Taylor House Office Building. In past years, you could count on Maryland Public Television to occasionally air a random committee hearing after midnight, so only drunks, loners or insomniacs could watch. Well, maybe not the insomniacs, because a committee hearing would probably serve as an effective treatment for those who can’t fall asleep without help.


Now we’ll be able to watch our legislators, alertly absorbing the testimony of proponents and opponents, sitting in rapt attention with laser-like focus.


Yeah, right.


The only thing they’ll be focused on is their laptops, as they try to keep up with constituent email, political outreach, and catching up on the hometown newspaper. Once they forget the cameras are on (which given the attention span in Annapolis will take a week), we’ll get to see who the nose-pickers and nail biters are, too. Oh, goody.


Kidding aside, it might be fun to watch bill hearings on partial birth abortion or gun control. If the leadership allows those bills to have a hearing, that is.


This early session lull would be a great time for our new county legislators to study the issues with which they may not be all that familiar. The 90-Day Report and the Major Issues Review publications are produced by the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services. These documents, both available to the public through the General Assembly website, can serve as an excellent tutorial for the newly elected and a decent refresher for the re-elected. The question is: Will they?


Next week: A more detailed look at our own delegation, who makes it up and what committees and issues they’ll be dealing with.



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