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August 25, 2003

The General Assembly Interim (and the Great Republican Challenge)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

August 19, 2003

I stopped writing about my General Assembly experience last year, after Session ended in April. I haven't kept it up because I was fearful that the "interim" schedule would put you to sleep. I've had several people ask if I was planning to do some sort of an update, so here goes!

The State House, buzzing with activity from early January through early April, changes dramatically after the 188 legislators pack up and head home.

Once we're gone, Annapolis returns to normal (?), with tourists and sailors filling the rooms that had played host to the legions of the self-absorbed.

I actually had to adjust to life at home on a regular basis. No 15-minute increment schedule; no always being late for a meeting or appointment; no lobbyists poised out front to press a point; and very few "schmooze fest" cocktail parties.

In fact, I was as unprepared for the interim as I had been for the actual Session. I anticipated a couple of meetings in the district every week, and a few calls or emails from my constituents.

During my first week in my Brunswick office, I had 34 phone call and 25 email requests for help. These requests ran the gamut, from help with prescription drug coverage to help dealing with the Motor Vehicle Administration.

While the number of requests has dropped a bit, we still average seven or eight calls a day, and several daily email requests. This is the part of the job I like best, being able to make the machine of State government work in the best interests of our citizens.

Many friends and associates ask me how I like working in Annapolis. They're surprised when they find out that I'm only down there full time January through April, and only a few times a month during the rest of the year.

Looking at my calendar, I have functions almost every night of the week, and several events, meetings, or gatherings on the weekends. This is essentially the same as my experience with the Board of County Commissioners, all of whom spend a great deal of time away from their families.

My early interim was busy with the Senatorial/Delegate Scholarship program administration. I received 35 scholarship requests from high school seniors, college students, and adults looking to go back to college. Everyone who applied received an award, and I'm amazed at how great most of the applications were.

The money for this program is allocated by the Maryland Higher Education Commission for distribution by the 188 members of the General Assembly. Many senators and delegates opt to let the MHEC review and award the scholarships, I opted to do the work myself. Justin Horman, my former aide, did a good job of reviewing and ranking candidates.

I was shocked at the amount of money available for what is essentially an incumbent protection program. We're talking upwards of $24,000 here. No wonder previous attempts to eliminate this program met with strong objections from the General Assembly!

Along with constituent service work, the interim brings committee meetings, caucus meetings, and tours galore. I've been to mental health facilities, hospitals, farms, and factories. I've heard from experts on heart surgery, eye care, drug dependence, and hospice care.

I've been appointed to a statewide task force on procurement efficiency. The objective of the task force is to recommend changes to the purchase of goods and services. Members include most of the cabinet secretaries and several private sector experts.

The thinking behind the bill to create the task force was that any savings over the $7 billion spent on these purchases would be an important return for the State treasury.

Unfortunately, while the bill was working its way through the committee process in the House and Senate, officials from the University of Maryland worked behind the scenes to remove themselves from the task force's oversight.

Why, you ask, would one of the State's largest purchasing entities seek an exemption from this type of review? I believe the administrators feared that they would lose ownership over the process, and they risked criticism for their internal processes.

This is the same institutional management that sees the logic in responding to cuts in aid by raising tuition instead of trimming programs. No wonder they fear an external analysis. There's no telling what we might find. I subscribe to an old theory: If you have nothing to hide, you never fear outside assistance.

The Interim has given me a chance to travel around District 3B. I've been to Kiwanis, Ruritan, and Lions Club meetings. I've attended carnivals, expos, and luncheons. I've met with citizens groups, agricultural organizations, and state employees.

I spend a lot of time driving on Route 67 between Brunswick and Washington County. I've attended meetings of the Brunswick and Hagerstown City Councils, and I've met with both the Frederick and Washington County Commissioners.

I have been able to watch three new delegates take the oath of office. These appointments have occurred through the promotion of senior delegates to jobs with the Ehrlich Administration.

This brings me my latest interesting observation. I read last week how several long-term state employees were downsized by the recent $208 million dollar budget cuts.

Three of these folks suspect that politics played a part on their dismissals. DUH! One of the people whose job was eliminated had been a county chair for the Kennedy-Townsend campaign. Another was Ocean City Councilwoman Nancy Howard.

Nancy had worked in a high profile position in the Department of Natural Resources, and was an active Democrat on the lower shore. She felt it unfair and inappropriate that her job was eliminated.

I've listened for years (at least eight) as Republicans have complained bitterly about how Parris Glendening would ignore qualified Republican candidates for judicial appointment, wanting to pack the courts with ideological mirrors.

Well, this lays out nicely the challenge I see ahead for Republicans. We have promised Maryland a new way of governing, a break from the status quo. We won't get a second chance. If we collectively fail to live up to the high standards we've set, and if we don't deliver on our promises, I suspect we'll not get another chance for a long time.

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