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January 8, 2004

The 2004 General Assembly Journal Part 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Uh, oh, you say. I thought he exhausted that idea last year. Nope! I'm going to try once again to describe the excitement, silliness, power plays, and hardball associated with the legislative branch of our State government as it happens, right from the center of it all.

The fun officially starts January 14, 2004 (next Tuesday). Unlike last year, the opening session isn't as high profile, since family and friends got their fill of pomp and circumstance last year.

Instead of a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen, stumbling about trying to get a lay of the land, this year's Session promises to be more controversial, confrontational, and considerably busier.

The tone of the whole 90-day process will be established very early on. As I discussed last year, Governor Robert Ehrlich vetoed several high profile bills. Some of those vetoes have raised the ire of the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

Scuttlebutt has it that several bills vetoed by the governor will be scheduled for an override vote. That vote needs to occur early on, even as a part of the opening day.

Imagine the tone that will set! Instead of the normal celebratory tenure of the Opening Day, with a Floor calendar designed to get legislators out of the chambers and off to the dozens of high profile parties, I can see lengthy Floor debate and rancor as vetoes are overridden.

The lobbyists would be advised to keep the shrimp on ice and the beer in the fridge, as most legislators could be tied up trying to establish position on Opening Day.

Republicans, normally willing to "go along" with the nomination of the Democrat Party's leader to serve as Speaker of the House, might make their own nomination. This is a low risk proposition, as the Democrats know that they have a clear majority (better than 2-1), and Mike Busch will absolutely be re-elected Speaker of the House.

I talked about those formerly wide-eyed freshmen. They are now steely-eyed freshmen (since you're not a sophomore until you get re-elected), most intent on pushing a legislative agenda.

In the case of the Republicans, most of the legislative agenda they want to pursue will meet with objections from the majority party. House Speaker Busch and Senate President Mike Miller have different ways of dealing with that dissension.

Speaker Busch has the sheer numbers on his side. Do the math: 141 delegates minus 43 Republicans equals a big time majority. Given it takes 71 votes, even with conservative Democrats abandoning him, the Speaker wins every time with 90 plus votes.

President Miller envisions a more direct approach. The Senate Floor Rules allows filibuster or extended debate on a bill prior to a vote. Several Republican senators, including Frederick's own Alex Mooney, had planned to use the filibuster rule as a way to slow the legislative juggernaut.

Mike Miller is nothing if not in complete control of his Chamber. Feudal lords held nothing over President Miller, and he would not tolerate those annoying Republicans using Chamber rules in a manner he disagreed with.

So, what can he do if the rules allow conduct he objects to? Change the rule, of course!

Miller plans to force a Senate floor vote to lower the threshold for cloture, or cutting off debate on a pending question. He and his Democrat colleagues will cite the need to keep Senate business moving along a reasonable pace as the excuse, but only an idiot would fall for that.

So, the battle lines are drawn, such as they are. Expect to see some overrides of gubernatorial vetoes, not because Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller think the public policy implications are so important, but because they want to score some early victories.

To give you an example, both leaders have discussed overriding Governor Ehrlich's veto of a bill to require small appliance vendors to only sell products that meet a specific (and fairly rigorous) energy standard. All of the appliance dealers in Maryland, including Frederick, are deeply concerned that this bill could jeopardize their business. The environmental lobby suggests those are unfounded concerns, and we should be leaders on environmental law.

Now, I cannot speak to the personal motivation of either man. I have not asked them specifically why this veto needs to be overturned. From what I can see, neither man is what I would call a rabid environmentalist, in fact their voting record would indicate moderation on environmental issues.

Yet this bill shows up in conversations both have had with the media criticizing Mr. Ehrlich's vetoes. My theory is that Democratic leadership has spent a great deal of time looking at possible overrides, and they have settled on only those bills that have sufficient override votes from delegates and senators.

Count on a minority party reaction to majority strong-arm tactics. Nothing can bring the Republican Caucus together like a full frontal assault on Governor Ehrlich's agenda and reputation.

In an earlier column, I predicted the upcoming Session as make-or-break for Governor Ehrlich.

Statewide polling continues to suggest that most Marylanders feel that Governor Ehrlich is on the right track regarding managing the State budget and opposing broad-based tax increases. His best chance of enacting new policy falls in the cycle before the '06 election process begins.

The same can be said of the Democrat House and Senate leadership. If they choose to stymie Governor Ehrlich, denying him his legislative priorities while pushing through tax increases and governmental expansion, the sound they hear may not be the throngs coming to congratulate, it may well be the mob seeking to throw them out for good!

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