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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 13, 2003

General Assembly Journal - Part 18

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

SINE DIE - "The Last Day" - April 7, 2003

I first want to tell you how much I have enjoyed writing these little articles. I hope that my sense of wonder and the honor of serving my friends and neighbors has translated through these words.

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought I would be serving in the House of Delegates, I would have laughed said something like: "In my dreams!"

Well, that dream came true this past year, and my first Session is over. What follows is my recap of the last day. I kept a notepad with me throughout the day, and most of what you'll read was either scribbled on that pad or typed in my laptop as it was happening.

April 7th dawned on a cold, gray, rainy Annapolis morning. My day started in committee, as we were trying to resolve some differences in three critically important bills. The problem was the clock, as every hour that ticked by made it more difficult to get a bill read in both the House and the Senate.

We were scrambling on the CareFirst reform bill, a bill to protect non-profit community hospices, and the Board of Physicians Quality Assurance (BPQA) bill (you'll hear more on this later).

When the bells rang, we all headed to the State House to begin the marathon. The first Session of the day mirrored many of our earlier Floor sessions, with second and third reader calendars packed with bills. The pages, all of whom had served in previous sessions, were flying around the Chamber distributing bills, amendments, Conference Committee reports, water, and coffee.

I served on my first Conference Committee on a bill to provide Medicaid reimbursement for community-based services for children. Conference Committees are composed of three delegates and three senators. The conferees are chosen by the Standing Committee Chairs, and my Chair, John Hurson (D., Montgomery Co.), made a commitment to appoint one Republican to each conference committee.

I envisioned hurried hallway meetings, with passionate, last minute arguments by members from both chambers. What I got was Pete Hammen (D., Baltimore), the vice chair of the Heath & Government Operations Committee, standing beside my seat on the Floor whispering that the Senate conferees had agreed to accept the House position. All I had to do was sign the conference report. Some effort, huh? It could have been worse, as I was soon to discover.

We broke after a few hours, and I went back to the office to return some phone calls and emails. Speaking of email, the Maryland State Teachers Association got wind of my NAY vote on the House revenue bill (HB 753). I was inundated with faxes and emails from union members demanding that I explain my vote against revenue for teachers and education. The notes (all written exactly the same way, using the very same words) indicated a betrayal by my voting against the revenue bill.

I tried to help you understand my no vote in the last edition, so I wonít go through it again. I still think I did the right thing, and those who disagree will understand next year when the fiscal problem is even worse!

The tension was growing throughout the day. Our second trip to the State House would be our last of the year. Many of my colleagues brought chips, cookies, and candy. Some of the desks looked like a tailgate party. The pages had coffee brewing, and from the demands, it looked like the preference was leaded over unleaded!

The Floor action was different than other Sessions. The tension increased significantly as the afternoon turned to evening. Special guests began arriving, from high profile media types to Baltimoreís Martin OíMalley, Irish rock star masquerading as Charm City Mayor. Several county executives, including Janet Owens (Anne Arundel), Jim Smith (Baltimore County), and Doug Duncan (Montgomery County & Governor wanna-be) were shaking hands and "being seen" in the lobby and the Lounge.

At 6:30 P.M., we all walked over to the Mansion for a buffet reception. This is one of those surreal scenes you can only experience in Annapolis. The very same delegates and senators who voted to scuttle Governor Robert Ehrlich's agenda for the last 90 days are standing in the buffet line, filling up their plates with his roast beef, asparagus, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. For the record, he didnít seem to mind.

We were back in at 7:30 P.M., and now the real fireworks began. The list of third readers seemed to keep growing, with every vote appearing to lead to another.

This is when I'm thankful for my careful preparation during the Sessions that preceded Sine Die. Most of the controversial bills were now annotated with my digital notes, so I could just type in the bill number and see what I wanted to do. I won't torpedo the political careers of my colleagues, but several delegates have no clue as to how to vote on many of the bills. They either look at the Board to see how others vote, or they employ such subtleties as asking someone else what the bill does and whether it's good or bad.

The most compelling moments of this whole year occurred between 9 P. M. and midnight. The first derailment occurred when chair of the Senate Education, Health, and Environment Paula Hollinger (D. Baltimore Co.) decided to take a hard line on the Board of Physicians Quality Assurance (BPQA) bill.

The BPQA is the board that regulates the practice of medicine and disciplines medical doctors. Chairman Hollinger, a retired nurse, has felt that the BPQA was too easy on doctors. My committee had developed a well thought-out, rational compromise, one that replaced the Board with new members and improved the process of administering punishments.

The conference committee could not reach agreement, as Senator Hollinger made clear she would hold out for her version at all costs. Let me explain the consequences of this threat. If the General Assembly were to fail to adopt a bill, the BPQA would cease to exist. The Board had been established with a sunset provision, and the sunset would have kicked in over the interim.

Imagine a scenario where no one would regulate the practice of medicine. We're not talking about the Board of Circus Clown Quality Assurance. Without the BPQA, anyone could hang out a shingle and practice medicine. Our committee chairman, John Hurson, called us to the Lounge to deal with this. We agreed to concede on the House version, if only to avoid the crisis that would have occurred.

Back on the Floor, the bill eventually came up for a vote. Del. Bobby Zirkin (D., Baltimore Co.) stood to object to the compromise. He gave a stirring and passionate defense of his position, which in a nutshell was to not let the House be pushed around by Senator Hollinger.

Unfortunately, not all of the House members realized that at least some of Delegate Zirkin's concern arose out of his visceral dislike for Senator Hollinger. In the end, a strong majority approved the Senate version. Crisis averted!

Well, at least that crisis. At 9 P. M., Norm Conway (D. Wicomico), the vice chair of Appropriations and chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, stood and asked for the Speaker's attention.

When given the Floor, Delegate Conway silenced the whole House with the announcement that the conference committee on the capital budget had failed to achieve agreement. He described the nightmare scenario, whereby the House Appropriations Committee had approved $12.7 million worth of local bond projects while the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee had refused to entertain any local projects.

The wildcard, and the source of the ultimate conflict, was Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert) speculating that local bond funding would be better spent on building schools.

Without a capital budget compromise, the General Assembly wouldn't get away from Annapolis. Delegate Conway waved a petition over his head, and asked that all of the House members sign the petition to Governor Ehrlich, calling for a Special Session to convene on Wednesday (4/9) until such time as a capital budget could be agreed upon.

At this moment, I learned an essential truth about Annapolis. Set all of the high drama of the legislature aside, this place is at its most compelling and interesting when the leadership loses control and no one knows what's happening. Nothing beats the look of sheer panic and indecision on the people who normally exercise total control over the House.

Speaker Busch left the dais, and Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D. Baltimore County) took the helm. We didn't know it at the time, but the Speaker, Senate President, and Governor held a 24-minute emergency meeting in the Senate Presidentís office. They discussed the capital budget, the charter schools bill, and a few other pressing topics.

The Governor would joke the next day that those 24 minutes were the most productive minutes of the entire General Assembly.

The capital budget compromise was that there would be no local bond projects in FY'04, but that all three parties would make them a priority in FY'05. Sounds reasonable, huh? Unfortunately, this is EXACTLY the same compromise reached between the Senate and House for FY'03 as well. No local bond projects last year, and there won't be any this year either.

Some will say (probably my opponents in 3 years) that the Frederick County Delegation failed to deliver the "pork". My statement during the campaign is even truer today. The delegation wasn't going to bring home much pork (local bond projects) because the pig (the FY'04 budget) was malnourished!

With the crisis on the budget behind us, we got back to the last push towards midnight. As the clock ticked down, the pace slowed a bit. The print shop had to get the final versions produced, so the Speaker used the downtime to thank those he thought were deserving of recognition. He thanked everyone but the custodians who clean the Chamber, and he might have gotten to them if time permitted.

Finally, at 11:56 P.M., we voted on the last bill. The Chamber counted down the last few minutes, and a small group of pages, who had gone up into the Gallery, dumped large bags of balloons and confetti on the Chamber below.

After the celebration, I opened the lid of my desk and gathered up the remnants of the Session. I found a picture taken from over the Governorís shoulder looking back into the Chamber on Inauguration Day, a copy of the freshmen photo, my House Rules handbook, some extra bill copies, and a copy of Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bellís State of the Judiciary speech. The last item is possibly the world's most effective sleep aid.

The adventure that for me began back in June and ended in a sea of confetti and high-fives on the Floor. My first Session was now in the history books! I have learned more than I ever thought I could about my State, healthcare, the budget, and the institution of which I have become a part. Next year, even though I'll still be amazed to be here, I wonít be lost and dependent on others to learn the ropes. I'll hit the ground running and work hard to make my constituents proud to call me their Delegate!

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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