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February 9, 2003

General Assembly Journal - Part 7

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Wednesday January 30th - My First Legislative Controversy

Today I'm facing my first legislative controversy. After some soul-searching, I have decided to co-sponsor a bill to create a pilot project to test the affects of medically prescribed marijuana on terminally ill cancer patients.

Limited scientific evidence suggests that marijuana can reduce nausea and increase appetite. I don't pretend to be an expert on these matters. What I do know is that I believe we should do everything we can to help victims of this horrible illness to maintain their quality of life.

The other side is of this argument is both valid and convincing. Those opposed to this bill suggest that any expansion of the legal use of a currently banned substance weakens our overall social resolve to widespread drug use. In fact, most law enforcement agencies subscribe to this view. In the final analysis, I have concluded that ANYTHING we can do to make the final stages of life for the terminal cancer sufferer more comfortable should be done.

As is always my position, I will respect the differences of those who disagree with me. In politics, we should be able to disagree courteously over honest policy differences (I learned that from Lennie Thompson...REALLY!).

February 2003 - Bill Hearings/Committee Chairs

The adage reads that the "heavy lifting" of the General Assembly occurs not on the floor but in committee. If you accept that (itís true), then some of the most powerful legislators are the chairmen of the standing committees. A chairman decides which bills get a hearing, when the hearing is held, who gets to testify, how much time is spent on each bill, and when the bill will get voted on. So the process goes like this.

Our Floor System calendar reflects a bill hearing, and lists the bills to be heard. On the floor of the chamber, the chairman will announce the bill hearings for that day. Fifteen minutes prior to the hearing, committee staff distributes hard copies of the testimony to be offered. Then the long, laborious process of testimony begins.

Each bill attracts both supporters and opponents, and everyone wants their say. A typical hearing, with 7-10 bills, would last 3-4 hours and cover a wide range of topics. A skill sadly lacking seems to be an inability to say " I Agree" versus giving a speech that has the same effect.

Following the hearings, the chairman will decide if he/she has the votes they need to report the bill out of committee. If so, the bill is scheduled for a voting session. My committee votes on Friday afternoon, so on Thursday evening we get a preliminary voting list. That gives members the night to refresh their memories prior to the vote. Friday morning we get a final voting list.

The voting sessions are unlike any other meeting. No lobbyists or advocates are allowed to participate, and even the media is discouraged from attending (although not prohibited). The gloves come off in these sessions. This is your big chance to sway others to your particular point of view. I expect some real fireworks in voting sessions.

My chairman alternates how the voting is done, switching off which side of the room goes first. This discourages "copying", whereby junior members choose a favored veteran who they think will vote the right way, then watch how they vote, and then do the same thing. In my way of thinking, if you are so unprepared you need to mimic someone else, you shouldnít be here anyway. My first voting session is scheduled for this Friday, and I know how Iíll vote on each bill when we get to it.

Once a committee issues a favorable report, the bill goes to the floor for "second reader". This is the time for floor debate and amendment.

There is an interesting tradition in the House of Delegates. If your committee issues a favorable report, you (as a member) are expected to support the committee decision on the floor. They call this the second reader rule, except it isnít really a rule. It is a tradition that is closely watched by the committee chairmen.

Tradition warns that if you violate the "rule", and rise on the floor during second reader to question your committee chair, you will face blackballing, and your legislative career will be spent in the backwater.

A better approach would be to find some other poor fool to introduce your amendment or ask your question for you. Most Republicans refuse to acknowledge this tradition, at least publicly. In fact, the tradition is adhered to - for the most part - but not when the issue is intensely partisan. Gun control and abortion rights are examples of issues where a Republican could be counted on to violate the "rule".

After the second reader, all bets are off. Committee members are free to vote their conscience on third reader (final House action), with no punitive response from the committee if you vote against a committee bill.

February 2-4 - The State Budget: A Clash of Interests

As I mentioned in an earlier column, the governor has offered a balanced budget, as is required by the (stateís) Constitution. Now the General Assembly does its work. Democrats, unable to accept the will of the voters, are calling this the "draconian" Ehrlich budget. I've been trying to help you separate the wheat from the political chaff.

Governor (Robert) Ehrlich had roughly 10 days to re-work the FY Ď03 budget. He had his own priorities he wanted to fund. I don't agree with every decision. Take the child care programs for instance.

Now the two budget committees of the General Assembly get a crack at the budget. Every bill gets referred to a standing committee, and the budget is no different. Governor Ehrlich has to face another obstacle his predecessor was able to avoid.

Whenever Governor (Parris) Glendening proposed an administration bill, the Speaker of the House (then Casper Taylor) would allow introduction under his name. No more! Now, Governor Ehrlich has to have a Republican sponsor like the minority leader.

So the budget goes to the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. These committees will review the budget in great detail. They'll hear testimony from state bureaucrats, from non-profits, and from business interests.

The committee work can only produce a limited number of outcomes. They can cut programs and funding. They can do nothing. Or, they could propose increasing programs as long as they raise the revenue to pay for the increases.

The governorís proposed budget increases education substantially; adds funding for mental health; increases drug treatment funding; and it brings several developmental disability programs back that Glendening had eliminated.

Several popular programs are facing deep cuts. Land preservation, urban revitalization, the University system, and several popular child care programs will lose funding in the Ehrlich budget.

Proponents of the governor's budget state that cuts were inevitable due to a dramatic rise in state spending in the last eight years; that slot machine revenue is bleeding across the state border; that increasing the sales and gas tax hurts the poor; and that slots are a much better way to raise revenue than to increase taxes.

Opponents argue that Maryland is in the current crisis due to the national economy (versus state overspending); that significant tax loopholes exist for businesses; that the tax on alcohol hasn't been raised in decades; that slots won't raise as much money as advertised; and that slots are both regressive and a public health liability.

Would you be shocked if I told you both groups are partly right? The implication of this is that both sides are also partly wrong.

Issue advocacy means that the advocate tells you what you need to know to see the issue from their point of view. Your challenge is to sift through the rhetoric and draw your own conclusions. As long as you accept the premise that you are NEVER given all the info, you'll do fine.

Here's where I am right now. I don't think tax increases make sense. We will truly hurt Marylanders by expanding the sales tax and increasing the fuel tax. How that approach will improve our state economy is logic beyond my ability to grasp. I'm willing to look at corporate tax loopholes, but we can't create disadvantageous situations that would cause employers to flee Maryland.

As far as slots, I wish we could have balanced the budget without depending on slots revenue. Then we could have had a statewide conversation on expanding gambling. Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury. I campaigned in support of slots conditioned on funding of public education. Obviously, this issue generates considerable heat.

Good luck peering through the smoke!

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