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March 15, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 10

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Only 34 days left to legislate! Today's Journal entry will reflect the mood of the General Assembly; fast furious, and varied.

Thought #1: Baltimore City Schools. Mayor Martin O'Malley spent many days in the last three weeks shuttling between Charm City and the state capitol. He was never happy having to negotiate the long-term solution to his city's school problems with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the man he is likely to challenge in the 2006 gubernatorial contest.

Monday night, the legislature was prepared to adopt emergency legislation to provide a loan in exchange for fiscal oversight. Governor Ehrlich had drafted a bill, and had secured the necessary support (including support from the mayor).

By Tuesday morning, everything had changed. The mayor had decided that he would rather risk the city's bond rating than accept the governor's intervention. The mayor and City Council will raid the "rainy day" fund to bail the school board out of the current crisis.

I always try to give credit where it's due. Mayor O'Malley has shown me something here. He understands that Baltimore City is better at solving it's own problem, not being dependent on the state for that answer. The mark of a leader is a willingness to make a really tough, potentially politically unpopular call when action is needed.

The downside is worse than the upside. If Mayor O'Malley and the school board fail to control spending, if they are unable to obtain the teachers' union support of wage and benefit concessions, or if performance starts to suffer, the political backlash could destroy an otherwise stellar political career.

Hero if it works, dog if it doesn't! Only time will tell whether we break out the banners or the dog biscuits.

Thought #2: Legislative budget controls. I've talked before about a bill before the House and Senate to give wider powers to the legislature in moving money within the budget. Currently, the governor has an unprecedented level of control over the budget, and the General Assembly can only reduce the budget.

Sen. P. J. Hogan (D., Montgomery) has introduced a bill to expand the legislature's power, which has the affect of reducing the governor's budget control. Governor Ehrlich and his staff were quick to object to this blatant attempt to undermine the will of the voters of Maryland.

Unfortunately, the Republican members of the House and Senate find themselves in a pickle of sorts. The Republican Caucus of both houses had strongly supported a similar amendment in prior administrations, especially the dark days known as the Glendening Years.

I love these scenarios. Republicans will have to argue against the very same position they took previously, and the Democrats will have to do the same thing, only from a different perspective.

It'll be fun, and I hope the media covers it. Nothing better than politicians who have to reverse their position and then defend the reversal!

UPDATE: The Senate failed to meet the constitutional standard of 29 votes to pass a constitutional amendment, which is what Senator Hogan's bill would have required. Sen. Don Munson (R., Washington Co.) switched his vote. Two day ago, he had voted in favor of the amendment. The sponsor of the amendment, Senator Hogan, accused the governor of "arm twisting." Interesting observation when a Democrat in the Senate accuses a Republican of arm-twisting. Senate President Mike Miller (D., PG and Calvert) has raised the arm-twist to the level of art. End Note: In addition to Senator Munson's switch, three Democrats also switched their votes and opposed the constitutional change.

Thought #3: Maryland dealt with another political scandal this past and current year. State Police Superintendent Edward Norris was accused of using discretionary funds to pay for illicit liaisons. The illegal activity occurred while Mr. Norris served as Baltimore City Police Commissioner.

Last week Chief Norris pled guilty in federal court to tax evasion, after denying the activity had occurred at all. When the indictments were announced, Mr. Norris was placed on a suspended status as Superintendent, pending the outcome of his case.

The State Police organization requires a strong and steady leader, and Governor Ehrlich saw fit to appoint former Del. Thomas "Tim" Hutchins as an acting superintendent. Tim's appointment was met with wide, bipartisan support.

As soon as Chief Norris accepted the plea agreement, the Governor announced his intention to appoint Superintendent Hutchins on a permanent basis. The governor's cabinet appointments require confirmation by the State Senate. The normal path these appointments take is that the Senate sends all appointments to the Senate Executive Nominations Committee for their deliberation and vote.

Last Wednesday we made history. The full Senate, on the floor, appointed Superintendent Hutchins. This is the first time in over a decade that a gubernatorial appointment was confirmed immediately, without a committee referral.

Superintendent Hutchins was received like a conquering hero. The House and Senate gave him a rousing, standing ovation after history had been made. Tim is a great leader, a trooper's trooper, and brings a sense of vision and leadership to his permanent position.

Thought # 4: Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund (a.k.a. the Flush Fee): Public sewer users all across Maryland were bracing for an increase in annual fees, given that Governor Ehrlich had documented his intent to clean up the Bay using this new revenue source.

Septic users were breathing a sigh of relief. The administration bill ignored these septic users, and they were left out of the conversation. Unfortunately, the committee system intervened.

The House Environmental Matters Committee is holding hearings and a special workgroup on this bill. As it sits currently, the issue of a septic system fee seems to be back on the table. I anticipate that septic users will ultimately be included, with a lower annual fee than sewer users. That money would be spent on the state cover crop program, addressing inflow and infiltration, with some left over for fixing failed septic.

The political angle is that the chair of the committee, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D., Baltimore) has made it clear that the bill WILL NOT be voted out of committee without Republican support. She suggests that since it is an administration initiative, there is no logical reason why Republicans would not vote for the bill.

Let me offer one or two. Rural legislators, regardless of party affiliation, might have a serious concern over their constituents having to pay into a fund that would benefit a wide array of services beyond those for which the person being taxed is responsible. Also, the logic that Republicans should vote for a bill that originated in the administration falls apart when it gets drastically altered in the committee process.

It could have Governor Ehrlich's name on it, but he might not even support it when the committee process gets through with it!

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