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February 16, 2004

General Assembly Journal - Part 6

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

February 10, 2004

A little over two months left, and already the stress level is increasing. We'll be setting a record this year for bills introduced.

The good news is that we'll also set a record for the number of bills killed. Remember last year's Journal: we measure success not by the good things we do, but by the bad things we don't do.

I've received some more wise counsel from regular readers longing for a more "local" perspective. Local for me means both Frederick and Washington counties, as my District includes both.

The Frederick County Commissioners legislative request has been dealt with - for the most part. The requested excise tax on real estate sales was tabled for a year. This is the tax that had broad support, including builders, realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, and the PTA Council.

I won't try to make a case for the bill again. I lost that effort last Friday, so we move on. The maneuvering behind the scenes was much more entertaining anyway.

All along, Del. Joseph Bartlett and Sen. Alex Mooney had made clear their opposition to this tax. In fact, these two legislators have opposed every "tax" bill they've faced. They both feel that government should function within its means, and that any tax increase is a burden on taxpayers, hence a bad thing.

They're signatories on the Americans for Tax Reformís "No Tax" pledge, so no one should be surprised by their reaction. I did not sign the pledge, as I fear tying my hands with policy positions before I understand the full scope of the problem.

Del. Patrick Hogan shares the view (held by most members of the Frederick delegation) that tax increases should be avoided. He had not made up his mind on this bill going into our hearing last Friday. My observation of Patrick is that he really works to understand the policy implications of his votes.

Del. Galen Clagett was opposed to the bill as written and submitted by the county commissioners. Early in the week, he had indicated to several delegation members that he intended to send the bill back to the county, with a request they "fix" the bill and resubmit it.

Del. Don Elliott and Senator David Brinkley also were "keeping their powder dry," not committing themselves prior to the hearing. Del. Paul Stull and I had indicated our intent to support the bill and the reasons for that support.

Fast forward to the Frederick County Delegation hearing on February 6. After a short discussion, Delegate Elliott moved to postpone the bill for a year. The motion was quickly seconded. For those who were looking for a way to get out of this without having to cast a tough vote, Delegate Elliott provided the perfect solution.

Senator Mooney, to his credit, was quick to say that he'd rather just kill it outright, but that he'd support the motion.

Delegate Stull, the delegation chair, was trying to determine where this was going. Senator Brinkley, a possible supporter of the tax, had left the meeting early to attend a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voting session.

Delegate Stull knew that I was a YEA, Senator Brinkley was probably a YEA, and he was also a YEA. None of us knew where Delegate Hogan was on the bill. With Mr. Brinkley out, there was no way the bill was going forward. It takes five affirmative votes to move a delegation bill.

Another bit of intrigue arose around the countyís Solid Waste User Fee, another fee bill requested by the commissioners. This bill would generate the revenue necessary to operate the Solid Waste enterprise fund.

That bill failed to receive five affirmative votes. Our history dictates that when the bill fails to receive a majority, it disappears. This time, though, all bets are off. When Senator Brinkley rejoined the meeting, Delegate Elliott requested the bill be reconsidered.

Our delegation had not adopted a set of rules to guide our procedures. So when Delegate Elliott made a motion that otherwise would have been ruled out of order, a failure to adopt rules meant that the chair had no choice but to entertain the motion. The bill was back from the dead, and with Senator Brinkley's vote, was moved forward with five votes.

I thought about the ramifications of that action, and spoke to the delegation about adopting rules. I guess I forgot one of my own rules, and ended up being assigned the job of drafting a set of rules for future consideration.

I understand that Senator Brinkley has - since the delegation meeting on the 6th - "dropped" the Excise Tax bill in the Senate hopper. That means that a county bill, given due consideration, whose formal disposition was a one year deferral, will be introduced in the Senate anyway.

Senator Brinkley sits on the Senate committee that would hear the bill. Should be interesting bill testimony, though. "Senator, what was the local delegation position on this bill"? "Well, Mr. Chairman, the delegation voted to postpone any action for one year".

That doesn't even deal with the Floor debate in the Senate Chamber. One Frederick County Senator stands to urge a favorable vote on a local bill, while the other stands and debates him based on the action of the delegation.

No wonder the folks back home have trouble figuring us out. I've been here a year and a half, and I have trouble putting it all together.

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