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February 23, 2003

General Assembly Journal Part 8 - The Halfway Mark

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Well, in spite of my suspicions early on, we’ve made it to the halfway mark. The legislature is facing an interesting, upcoming 45 days. In past years, the General Assembly has had to deal with very difficult budget circumstances. In my recollection, I can think of no time that measures up to the challenge of the FY ‘04 Budget.

I’ve written before about the challenge of balancing a budget in the face of a billion dollar plus structural deficit. I’ve read and heard recently that (former Governor) Parris Glendening and his supporters (and defenders) mention that Maryland is better off than several other states. They say that the AAA bond rating and the "rainy day" fund serve as our hedge against gloomy economic times.

What those articulate arguments fail to address is the steady increase in the cost of state government in the last eight years. They almost never mention that the cost of your state government has increased by more than 24% in the last several years.

Our problem cannot be blamed on any single event or occurrence. The growth in government (both programs and personnel) occurred in a time when the national economy was strong. Dot coms were taking off, posting stratospheric investment returns even though the companies produced little of substantive value.

Unfortunately, as bad as Wall Street was at recognizing the lack of true value in the digital boom, state government was equally bad at recognizing that after September 11, 2001, the prudent course would have been to freeze positions and look at cutting back soon after the terrorist attacks on our country.

So now we face a $1.7 billion deficit, and the policy choices pit urban against rural, agriculture against industrial, education against transportation, and child-care providers against historic preservation. I can’t help but wonder why everyone who weighs in on this debate doesn’t recognize that EVERYONE, regardless of the relative value of their particular interest, will have to sacrifice in this tough time.

This week I had a couple of firsts. My first real vote was cast on Thursday. That might get those of you who watch us closely wondering if I missed something. If you check the General Assembly website (, you’ll see that the House of Delegates voted on the second and third reader calendar on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Let me tell you about those votes. The Speaker of the House [Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel)] has the clerk read the bill, then he asks for yeas and nays. I can only assume that he asks because he has to, not because we’re expected to vote. He doesn’t hesitate at all between the time he calls for the vote and the actual vote itself. In fact, the members of the House are so busy with conversations and other business that this charade passes without their notice.

That brings me to another point. I am still gratified and honored to be here. That cannot be said of many of the veteran legislators. They lounge around, talk, laugh, read email, schmooze, and patrol the floor for votes while the Speaker conducts the business from the podium. I try to hear the Order of Business, everything from the reading of bills to the assignment of members to committees.

Now back to the real voting. On Thursday (February 13), we faced our first third reader calendar including real floor debate. Several bills were sent to the floor from the Judiciary Committee. The most controversial bill was one that would suspend the license of someone who steals gasoline from a service station. The bill was reported out of committee favorably, with all but two votes in favor.

On the floor, though, all bets were off. Several members had a problem with the idea of such a strict penalty for what they considered shoplifting. One delegate, Shane Pendergrass (D., Howard) offered a floor amendment to expand the bill to suspend a license for the theft of fuzzy dice, auto odor eliminators, and baby on board stickers. She wanted to make a point, and used the amendment process to do so.

So what is the amendment process, anyway?

Well, lawyers who work for the General Assembly are poised to assist legislators by taking an idea for an amendment and crafting the proper bill language (both form and substance) for introduction in either committee or on the floor. So, in the case at hand, a delegate used a structured process to make a point. Probably not the best example of the lofty purpose for which we’ve been sent down here, huh?

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