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March 24, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 12 (#1)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

I finally saw a real squeeze on the Floor. I've talked to you before about the role of the different floor leaders. The majority and minority leaders are the heads of their respective parties in the body, and they command a good deal of respect.

The Whips are the guys who get the vote, using a team of deputy whips to divide the members of their parties into manageable groups. Whips are expected to continually poll the members, so there shouldn't be much question as to whether a particular initiative will pass or fail.

The role of the Whip was really tested last year during the slots debacle. Last week, I got to see the Minority Whip, Tony O'Donnell (R., Calvert & St. Mary's Co.) really earn his keep.

Last Friday there were two major votes on third reading (the final House vote). The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, better known as the Flush Fee, and the transportation revenue package.

Neither of these votes was easy. The Bay Restoration fund adds an annual fee to the bill of every public sewer treatment plant customer. The purpose is to generate revenue to bring the public plants into compliance with current environmental law, which should substantially reduce nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

In committee, there had been discussion about also adding a fee to septic systems. Urban legislators felt it unfair to add a fee to users of treatment plants while letting the septic users off easy. Unfortunately, no rural legislator was going to support a blanket fee on septic users. If the argument was that treatment plants dump sewage into the tributaries, then how do you justify a fee on septic systems?

Unfortunately, having no reference to the overall issue of septic systems meant that the urban legislators (remember, the vast majority of votes come from the DC and Baltimore metro areas) would not vote for Gov. Robert Ehrlich's signature piece of environmental legislation.

So a compromise emerged. Most septic systems need to be pumped out, usually between two and five years. The companies that do this work (called "honey dippers") haul the sewage to a treatment plant for dumping. Since this is the same waste stream covered under the Governor's bill, it was determined that it would be appropriate to add a charge to the honey dipper when they dump the pumped sewage at the plant.

Some are still very concerned about the cost to rural areas, and a few rural Democrats voted against the bill based on those concerns. Most of the Republicans, including many anti-tax advocates, had decided that this bill constituted a fee, not a tax.

In the end, almost all of the members, both Democrats and Republicans, voted for the bill. A few brave (?) souls ran off the floor to avoid having to vote. I'm proud that no one from Frederick County did that.

The transportation revenue package was another matter altogether. This bill is Governor Ehrlich's answer to address the transportation needs across Maryland. These needs are great, and don't just take my word for it.

National transportation groups that have conducted studies of regional transport systems fear that Maryland is losing ground on both highway and transit system quality and dependability. The trust fund that pays for highway and transit needs is broke, and there are basically two ways to raise the money.

First, you could increase the price of gasoline. When we're paying almost $2 per gallon at the tank, a 5- or 10-cent increase per gallon would be noticeable and severe. The Governor felt that now was not the time to raise the gas tax.

Not everyone agrees (surprised?). In fact, some of the Governor's core supporters find themselves on the other side. The State Chamber of Commerce does not support fee increases, and the Frederick and Washington County Chamber groups have weighed in against fee increases, favoring a gas tax.

The Governor and his people knew they had to do something proactive to get the votes needed to pass his transportation package. They opened active, focused negotiations with the Baltimore City delegation, tying a major new transit route study to support from the delegation for the transportation revenue package.

Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) told the Governor's staff that they would have to be able to deliver almost all of the Republicans, at least enough to get to 72 (as many as 40-41 Republicans), considering the Democrats who were willing to vote for the bill.

Remember me talking about how it works on the Floor, the Speaker calls for the bill. The Clerk reads the bill number, title, and sponsor. The Speaker then calls for roll. At that point, the voting system is turned on, and delegates start to vote.

All heads turn to the big board, and the counting starts. At first blush, there weren't enough votes to pass the bill. My initial count was that there were 69 votes, two shy of the number needed to pass the bill.

In tomorrow's installment, I'll tell you how they got the vote, and what this might mean for both Governor Ehrlich and a local delegate or two.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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