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January 20, 2004

General Assembly Journal - Part Two

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

January 14, 2004

Opening Day! All of the time and energy spent on research, constituent services, and speeches to clubs and organizations shifts to the work of the General Assembly now.

Annapolis is abuzz with the return of the legislators. Hotels are filling up, restaurants will have longer waits (but still not as bad as the FSK Mall restaurant row), and lobbyists will be booking the steakhouses for committee dinners.

First up for the House of Delegates will be the consent calendar of Gov. Robert E. Ehrlich's vetoes. I wrote last week that there would be several veto override votes.

In fact, Speaker of The House of Delegates Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) decided to put three bills on the list to override. We should spend a minute talking about overrides. When was the last time the legislature used this provision?

How about 1989! It has been FIFTEEN years since the legislature saw a need to override the governor.

So you might ask what critical public policy initiatives were jeopardized by Governor Ehrlich's veto pen?

The first one is a bill to set standards for energy efficiency for appliances. On the surface, it seems innocuous enough. Force the manufacturers to build, and the vendors to sell, washers, dryers, ranges, and refrigerators that use less energy.

Good for the environment and it lets Maryland be out-front on national policy making.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses. Federal energy policy already establishes national standards. Bill proponents claim those standards don't go far enough. Instead of lobbying Congress to increase federal standards, legislators think it would be easier to get the votes in Maryland to set our own standards.

Frederick is what I refer to as a "border" county. We have three states within a very easy drive. Imagine this scenario: Maryland legislators prevail, overriding Governor Ehrlich's veto. Only appliances that meet our new state standards can be sold here. Prices skyrocket for appliances sold in our state. Small appliance dealers feel the impact immediately, as customers start driving to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia to purchase their appliances.

Some legislators use the argument that this bill will only hurt the large vendors, referring to the bill as the "Home Depot" bill. Unfortunately, Home Depot and Sears will simply abandon those product lines in Maryland stores.

It might be better to call this the Hyssong's Appliance Center bill, because small, family companies like this great Frederick-based business will be the ones who feel the immediate financial impact.

The other two bills do not have a significant impact on Frederick and Washington County; they are mostly on the list to allow the speaker to send a message to the governor about who is in charge.

Don't take my word for it. One of these two bills is to override a veto of a bill from Sen. George Della (D., Baltimore). Senator Della actually had the nerve to introduce a bill to deny a liquor license to a tavern owner who had supported Governor Ehrlich over his Democratic rival.

Governor Ehrlich firmly believes in the power of the legislature in our state. He sees bills like this as petty, punitive, and unproductive. He vetoed Della's inconsequential bill, and we left town for the summer.

Now the Democrats in the House and Senate find it necessary to bring it back for a veto override. One problem, though.

The tavern owner, disgusted by the way the legislative process was manipulated for political purposes, sold his tavern and abandoned his plans. So why is a veto override necessary? To score points, that's why!

Speaker Busch and the Democrats spent all of last week urging a spirit of compromise and cooperation when the cameras were on. To hear them, you would believe that Governor Ehrlich alone is to blame for any disagreements in Annapolis.

Also, Mr. Busch and the Democrats in the House and Senate cast Governor Ehrlich and the Republicans as mean-spirited, hate mongers who enjoy cutting programs for the poor and needy.

They are counting on their belief in the diminished capacity of Maryland voters to accept such a narrow and faulty view of public policy choices. They hope that the ignorant and gullible will ignore the serious policy choices facing this state. They are intent on passing a sales tax increase this session, knowing that Governor Ehrlich will be true to his commitment and pull out the veto pen.

One big difference this year. A recent Washington Post (by no means a Republican mouthpiece) poll of likely voters shows that 62% approve of Mr. Ehrlich's performance; 57% feel he is moving Maryland in the right direction; and 75% believe he has a vision for the state's future. Looks to me like the voters aren't as gullible as the House and Senate leadership want to think they are!

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