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March 1, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 8

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

February 19, 2004

We've talked about the role of the Health and Government Operations Committee. Our jurisdiction includes the full range of healthcare issues facing Maryland. Additionally, we deal with homeland security, procurement, and some agency oversight.

If you read this journal, you know that the bulk of the real legislative work in Annapolis occurs in the standing committees. Time spent on the floor of the House rarely exceeds one hour early in the session.

We usually convene our Health and Government Operations Committee around 1 p.m. Yesterday we heard our last public testimony at 6:20 p.m. I joked last year about the attention span of my colleagues on the Committee. I'd hate to be a presenter who has waited all day to testify, only to get my three minutes at 6:30 p.m.

Today followed the pattern. We heard two bills that really brought 'em out of the woodwork.

The first bill dealt with changing the oversight for audiologists and hearing aid dispensers. Maybe you wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but you would if you sold hearing aids. I think everyone with an interest in this issue showed up today.

That crowd paled in comparison to the final hearing of the day. The final bill in today's schedule was the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2004. Yep, the indoor smoking ban bill.

The Clean Indoor Air Act was introduced by Del. Barbara Frush (D., Prince George's), a leading environmentalist (some might even say environmental whacko, but I don't like being a name caller). As evidence, I offer some of Delegate Frush's signature legislation.

This is the same delegate who is trying to stop the Western Maryland black bear hunt and the use of leg-hold traps, a pretty common pest management practice on farms in Frederick and Washington County.

I don't begrudge Delegate Frush her policy choices, I just respectfully disagree with her on the hunt and the traps.

Her work on a smoking ban spans several legislative sessions. In fact, my committee killed this vary same bill last year.

My musings have less to do with the substance of the debate on the merits and more to do with what I see as a major process flaw in how business gets done by the General Assembly.

By example, I offer for your consideration the method of holding hearings on a controversial measure. Since this bill was cross-filed in the Senate, both bodies held a hearing. The Senate Finance Committee heard the bill before the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

In legislative language, that means that the Senate committee would potentially hold a vote before the House committee. Our hearing was held on February 18. We had over 100 people signed up to testify on the smoking ban. Almost all of them were opposed, but the restaurant association and the tavern owners all testified in strong opposition to the ban.

As tradition dictated, the Senate vote on this bill was held last Friday, two days after our hearing. The Senate Committee voted 6-5 to kill the bill, what we refer to as an Unfavorable Committee Report.

Remember, a mere two days after 100 people traveled to Annapolis, the Senate Committee that heard the bill a week previously voted to kill the bill. The message this sends to the advocates, both pro and con, is that the passion and eloquence they demonstrated made no difference.

As an interested observer, I can't help but wonder why the two committee hearings weren't held on the same day? If they had, then folks wouldn't have had to spend two days traveling down to Annapolis.

On the bill, the opponents were celebrating the defeat. Sen. Mac Middleton, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, was credited with bringing a sense of balance to the argument. He is suggesting that proponents of the ban need to work more closely with the small business to come up with a better bill.

The advocates of the bill were also celebrating. Only in Annapolis could both sides have a reason to celebrate a yes/no vote. The ban proponents see that they picked up one or two votes in the Senate committee, which means that they're moving closer to their goal.

At this point, the House committee (including yours truly) will probably get a pass on having to cast a vote on this bill. The thinking being that if the Senate has already killed it, and thus it makes to sense to send the bill to the floor.

So the smoking ban is dead, but it'll be back next year, with even more favorable votes. So goes the work of the state legislature!

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