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March 25, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 12 (#2)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

In yesterday's installment, we were in the process of voting for the transportation revenue enhancement package sought by Governor Ehrlich.

There were a few delegates who had yet to vote, including Joe Bartlett (R., Frederick Co.) and two Democrats. At least two Republicans had voted no, including Bob McKee (R., Washington Co.). Normally the Speaker is quick to order the Clerk to "take the call," or download the vote tally. Not this time.

The Speaker signaled the Minority Whip [Del. Tony O' Donnell, (R., Calvert & St. Mary's Co.)], which it turns out was a pre-arranged signal that the GOP was short a vote or two. Tony leapt out of his chair and rushed to the back of the chamber, stopping at the row in front of me. He eased around Del. Paul Stull (R., Frederick Co.) and tapped Joe on the shoulder. "I need a vote now," was all Mr. O'Donnell said. It wasn't a request or suggestion. Tony is not a hard guy to read, his intent was plain and easy to interpret. He expected Joe to give Governor Ehrlich a vote.

Unfortunately for Joe, he had been very consistent in his concerns about both the flush fee and the transportation package. Joe signed the Americans for Tax Reform's "No Tax Pledge," which in effect states that the signatory will not vote to raise taxes - EVER.

Some of you skeptics are saying: "What the heck, they always break promises." Well, not if you think you might be running for Congress someday, and Alex Mooney might be your primary opponent. Joe has to be thinking about how the votes he casts in Annapolis will be viewed in the light of a congressional campaign.

Alex has already been quoted complaining that the Governor's transportation package amounts to a tax, and that he would not vote for it. So Delegate O'Donnell's trip to the back of the Chamber had meaning far beyond the vote being cast.

As Tony was returning to the front of the Chamber, Joe was pushing the green button to signal his support for the bill (and the revenue increases). Tony nodded to the Speaker, and the Speaker, seeing 72 affirmative votes, called for the clerk to take the call.

The upshot of all of this is that Governor Ehrlich got two major public policy victories from the House.

The pundits and politicos can spin this in any number of ways. The Governor's people and the State Republican Party will trumpet the Governor's skill and the hard work of his legislative advocates, most notably Secretary of the Environment Ken Philbrick, and Secretary of Transportation Bob Flanagan. These guys have been working delegates and senators almost non-stop for weeks.

The Governor also has employed his considerable charm and muscle, too. Dinners, lunches, and quick meetings in his second floor conference room clearly helped round up the votes. One of the Governor's policy advisors, Bernie Marczyk, worked tirelessly on the flush fee bill. There would not have been a compromise without Bernie!

The Democrats who voted against the Governor's bills are already writing or releasing their press statements. Delegates, possibly including Frederick's own Galen Clagett, will say that the increase in registration fees amounts to a "car tax," citing Virginia voter's rejection of similar approaches.

Many argue that a fuel tax is a more fair to generate the necessary revenue, I'm not sure I would disagree. Unfortunately, fuel prices at the pump really removed that idea from serious consideration.

So the bills move from the House over to the Senate. Senators who have been busy with the budget and slots now get to take up the question of sewage and vehicle registration fees. Since turnabout is fair play, the House gets the budget from the Senate, and the Ways and Means Committee gets to take up the slots bill, already passed by the Senate, this week.

Only three weeks left, and the biggest and most complex issues remain unresolved.

So much fun, so little time!

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