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June 13, 2003

A Break in the Fragile Peace

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

June 6, 2003

At a recent Frederick County Realtors Association luncheon, the Frederick County delegation to the General Assembly was asked to speak about the just-completed legislative session.

The way these usually work, we each get a few minutes to talk about whatever we think is important. One side note: we all do these, and many of them, once we get back from Annapolis.

At this one, I went first. Steve Fox, Realtors' legislative committee chair, decided to go in reverse alphabetical order. Following me was Del. Patrick Hogan (R., 3A). Delegate Hogan and I focused our talks on our experience as freshmen. I specifically mentioned my considerable time spent on the CareFirst/Blue Cross Blue Shield bill. I have found that every audience I speak to includes a number of CareFirst consumers.

Delegate Hogan mentioned his experience with the Environmental Matters Committee, and spent several minutes talking about the relationships he'd made, including playing basketball with the Governor.

I guess I'm a little jealous. Sen. Alex Mooney (R., 3), Del. Joe Bartlett (R., 4A), and Patrick all play hoops with the Governor, other legislators, and lobbyists most Tuesday nights. The only way I could do it would require a courtside crash cart and oxygen bottle. Those fast breaks lose something when the cardiac team has to get into position first.

After Patrick, it was Del. Don Elliott's turn. Delegate Elliott (R., 4B) has always struck me as a quiet, thoughtful, and intelligent. I've mentioned before how impressed I was with his conduct on the Health and Government Operations Committee.

Don gave a talk like nothing I've ever heard him give. He started out explaining why Howard Rawlings (D., Balt.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, was quoted saying the General Assembly had failed in its work this past year.

By neglecting the structural deficit, the fiscal problem facing Maryland will grow substantially over the next few years. Don then went on a 10-minute tear, attributing the failure to the Speaker of the House and his successful effort to kill the slots initiative. He actually BEAT his fist on the podium, and I was waiting for the shoe (a la Nikita Khrushchev).

I love to people watch, and there is no more fun group to watch than politicians. While Don was speaking, I watched Del. Galen Clagett (D., 3A) and Senator David Brinkley (R., 4).

Galen would be the next to speak after Don, and as a Democrat, has a VERY different view of the problem. He shook his head in disagreement several times while Don spoke, shifted several times in his seat, and made several notations.

David was watching Galen out of the corner of his eye, and it was apparent to me that David saw the trains headed for a collision. When Don finished, Steve introduced Delegate Claggett.

True to expectations, Galen gave a passionate defense of the majority. A few things he said deserve some attention. He (correctly) stated that Maryland is not the only state facing a severe fiscal situation. In fact, many states are in much worse shape.

Delegate Clagett then said something that still has me wondering if I heard what I thought I heard. He said that our state fiscal situation was NOT the result of overspending by the Glendening administration.

I'm sorry, readers. I'm actually laughing as I write this.

If the primary cause of our fiscal problem is not related, in any way, to the fact that spending in this state has gone up substantially over the last eight years, then I'm the Easter Bunny.

This is part of the silliness that makes the legislative process so unproductive. Revisionist history, coupled with outright hypocrisy, builds major roadblocks in the path of progress.

Speaking of revisionist history, Delegate Clagett had some more information to share. He blamed Governor Robert Ehrlich for all of the problems, chalking up the Governor's inexperience, adherence to a no-tax pledge, and dependence on a "bad" slots bill as the reason for all of the problems.

I've said before that the Governor's staff was far from flawless in how they handled the slots bill. What I haven't said is that the property tax increase that came from the Governor's office was intended as a compromise to get a slots bill. The Governor's office was willing to divert approximately $85 million from the General Fund by funding debt repayment from property tax revenue.

High-ranking Democrats in both the House and Senate were looking for a "gimme" from the Governor. Once they got the property tax offer, they failed to persuade the Speaker to allow a slots vote on the House floor.

Governor Ehrlich always said he would veto any attempt to increase sales or income tax. ALWAYS. No equivocation, no confusion, no question. Maybe the Speaker and President of the Senate thought he wanted slots so bad, he'd cave on one or both.

Governor Ehrlich understands why he won the election. The choice between the two candidates couldn't have been clearer. One candidate advocated slots at horse tracks as an alternative to increased income and sales taxes. The other was fundamentally opposed to slots, and, through her history, had demonstrated a tendency to increase whatever revenue she believed necessary to pay for programs and services.

Senator Brinkley used his time to explain this fact and many others. He gave a fairly detailed tutorial of the work done by the Budget and Taxation Committee, including the work on the slots bill.

During Galen's talk, he had mentioned how bad the slots bill was and why the Speaker felt it was important to delay any vote on gambling for a year. Senator Brinkley pointed out that the slots issue had been studied in detail for years, and that one more year would make no difference. Don Elliott explained how former governors had submitted "bad" legislation in prior sessions, only to have the committee process work hard to craft a better bill.

The upshot of all of this is that while the delegation worked very well in Annapolis, you should remember that we are eight individuals, with eight different views of the world.

More importantly, seven of us are Republicans, and agree for the most part with the Governor, his platform, and his commitment to controlling spending. Delegate Clagett, on the other hand, is a member of the majority party in the House of Delegates. As such, he will frequently align himself with the Speaker and the leadership in the House.

That doesn't mean that we won't all come together to fight for Frederick County. I believe we'll continue to do that. It does mean that you'll probably start to see some distinct differences emerge, and that process started with the Realtors.

Political compromise is often crafted through a fragile peace struck between Republicans and Democrats. The fragile peace in our delegation is starting to show some stress cracks. Time will tell whether those cracks cause a major fracture.

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