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March 31, 2003

General Assembly Journal - Part 16

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The End Game & the Art of the Deal March 24-26, 2003

Annapolis insiders call the last two weeks of Session the "end game". This is crunch time, the last opportunity for a bill to make it through the General Assembly. I've tried to keep you updated on where we are, and the coverage of the budget issues has dominated the local media.

The House passed a budget bill that resulted from weeks of hard work by the Appropriations Committee. The committee approved a budget that was not balanced, but was dependent on a tax increase proposal that had yet to be approved by the Ways and Means Committee.

When the budget bill hit the floor, I found that strategy a little dangerous. I wondered how the appropriators could assume the revenue folks would raise enough taxes and fees to fill the hole in the draft budget.

Little did I know that all those thorny little details had already been worked out behind the scenes. The leadership, consisting of the Speaker, the committee chairs, and the majority leader and whip had already met to resolve these unanswered questions. This was done behind closed doors, with no public input.

At the same time, the Governor (Robert Ehrlich) and President of the Senate (Mike Miller) were working feverishly behind the scenes on their own. Their task was to find votes, votes to get the slots bill out of committee and votes to get it approved on the floor.

When the Governor or Lieutenant Governor need votes, they invite legislators, individually or by delegation, over to the State House. This is referred to as "visiting the Second Floor," as their offices are located on the second floor of the State House.

The administration is certainly hoping that the GOP members will support the Governor on this issue. The slots bill has become a centerpiece of Governor Ehrlich's first year. At the same time, House Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) is pushing hard to prevent a vote on the slots bill, in the Ways and Means Committee and on the floor of the House.

To show you how serious this is, Sheila Hixson (D., Montgomery), the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, had scheduled a hearing on the Senate slots bill. Reporters asked her if the hearing would proceed in light of the Speaker's concerns. She said "yes."

Soon after, when reporters asked the Speaker for his reaction, he indicated that there would be NO hearing on the bill. He then contacted Chairman Hixson and - surprise - she pulled the bill off the hearing schedule.

I want to give you the "insider" stuff I promised in the last edition. The Minority Party is asking their members to vote in favor of the slots bill unless they have a religious or moral objection. Since this issue will define whether Governor Ehrlich succeeds or fails in his first session, it is essential to get most, if not all, of the Republicans to back his signature bill.

Unfortunately, very few members actually have specific religious objections. In our case in Frederick County, both Senator (Alex) Mooney and Delegate (Joe) Bartlett indicate that they will oppose a slots bill. Delegate Bartlett serves on Ways and Means, so his objection could be the knife through the heart if the Governor is counting on a favorable committee report and the Speaker is intent on killing it.

All of the other Frederick County legislators appear to be willing to vote for a bill, assuming they get the chance. Recently, Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, gave a passionate floor speech opposing the Governor's bill and the Senate version. In his speech, he complained about a lack of information, about the social evils of expanding legal gaming, and the fundamental unfairness of singling out the minority population by putting casinos in mostly minority communities.

Delegate Franchot has started sending news clippings around the House attached to his letterhead, attempting to sway members from supporting slots. Sadly, he fails to inform those same members that he himself co-sponsored a slots bill a few years back. His bill would have done essentially the same thing as the Governor's bill. It's too bad that some delegates hide behind public policy differences when the REAL motivation is purely political. I've asked him to remove me from his distribution list.

Votes Are Never Easy

We've had to cast some difficult votes recently. We've voted on the House version of the FY '04 budget. We've voted on making emergency contraceptives more easily available, by allowing pharmacists to dispense these drugs through a standing cooperative agreement with a physician. We've voted to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a Maryland drivers license. We've voted to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for the state university system.

I'll bet you're wondering how I voted on these issues. I can answer with one word: NO. I voted red (the color of NO on the voting board in the House) on each one of these proposals. I don't want you to wonder why I voted the way I did, so here's a bill-by-bill breakdown.

The Budget - I voted against the House version because the budget cuts critically important programs while increasing taxes and fees. I told you in an earlier journal that I thought we should have been able to discuss alternative revenue proposals. Since we were prevented from doing so, I voted no.

Emergency contraceptives - This is a very difficult and sensitive issue. Pro-choice advocates argue this bill is not about abortion. Pro-lifers argue that since life begins at conception, and these pills are designed to work within the first 48-72 hours, it is an abortion issue.

Well, I have a shocker. I cast my vote for an ENTIRELY different reason. I voted no, in committee and on the floor, because pharmacists have serious reservations about this proposal. In fact, we have two retired pharmacists in the House. Both Don Elliott (R., Frederick & Carroll), and Bennett Bozman (D., Eastern Shore) object to the bill. They both think that having a cooperative agreement with a physician could lead to liability and potential health problems. Both men say that these drugs have serious side affects. Each prescription should result from a specific physician referral.

Drivers Licenses for immigrants - Since this bill would apply to both legal and illegal immigrants, and our country is suffering from documented terrorist acts and plots, why would any sane legislator EVER vote to make it easier to obtain our most widely recognized form of identification? When you purchase an airline ticket, they ask for your driver's license. I can assure you that I will not vote to make it simpler for folks, who are ALREADY breaking the law, to continue doing so! I want us to adopt more restrictive controls on the movement of illegal immigrants, not less restrictive.

In-state tuition for immigrants - Imagine this. A serviceman or woman from Pennsylvania, currently fighting to free Iraq from the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, would pay more to attend the University of Maryland than an illegal immigrant. Again, I would challenge a supporter to explain that logic to me. I just plain don't see it! All this bill does is to generate more tuition for the universities. Maybe that's why they're in favor of the bill.

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