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April 15, 2004

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly From Annapolis

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

April 12, 2004

Well, here we are. Sine Die has come and gone, the balloons and confetti have fallen, and the 418th General Assembly Session has come to an end.

Now the pundits get to look back at what we've accomplished, to measure our collective effectiveness. Like every other year, the results are mixed at best.

Instead of running all of this stuff together, I thought it might be fun to break it down into easily digested summaries.

Delegate Weldon: On a personal basis, my results are less than stellar. I submitted four bills this year.

  1. The Move Over Law - I submitted a bill that would make it state law to move from the right lane to the center or left lane when approaching an emergency roadside operation. All of the public safety groups (law enforcement, fire and rescue) were in strong support. Unfortunately, some legislators felt this was an unfair incursion into driver's habits. The Senate version of my bill was defeated, so I was forced to withdraw my bill.

  2. Notification of Abuse Charge - The bill would have required the state Department of Human Services to notify a parent of an abuse allegation. We're hearing nightmare stories of parents, who choose to home school their children, being accused of abuse from within the school system. The bill also required that Social Services employees who investigate these allegations be trained in how to handle situations where parents are accused. The Ehrlich Administration had some concerns, so I withdrew the bill in order to address the concerns.

  3. De Facto Parenting Act of 2004 - This bill would give formal status to caregivers (especially relative caregivers) who provide for the care of a child when the biological parent(s) abandons the child. I feel VERY strongly about this issue. While members of the Judiciary Committee had some valid concerns about the rights of biological parents, I think they could have amended my bill instead of killing it. To quote the Governor of California in an earlier role: "I'll be back!"

  4. Procurement Code Revision - This bill, which was predicted to save Maryland taxpayers between $30-$70 million a year, was approved on a unanimous vote of the Government Operations Subcommittee, the Health and Government Operations Committee, and the full House of Delegates. Unfortunately, the Senate Environment, Health, and Education Committee defeated the bill. These are the same people who are complaining about how procurement decisions are made, yet they vote against a reform bill. Go figure! There is some good news, though. Several of the best provisions of this bill were incorporated into other bills, most of which have Democrat sponsors. This significantly improves the bill's chance of passage. In the end, I'm not as concerned about credit as much as I am seeing some of these reforms become law: reverse online auction bidding; raising the ceiling on unsolicited bids; and a study of exemptions from waivers from sections of the procurement code were all amended onto other bills that were moving ahead in the other Chamber.
Frederick County Delegation: The Delegation functioned fairly well considering the environment in Annapolis and the complexity associated with divided government. Both Houses passed the County Commissioner's entire legislative package, with one notable exception. The bill to give formal standing to local zoning authority regarding power plants was defeated in committee again this year.

The problems we encountered dealt with working outside the generally agreed guidelines of the delegation process. Senator David Brinkley's re-introduction of the transfer tax caused some problems. Also, the "Doctors with Guns" bill caused some problems, mostly because we didn't go through the normal public hearing process. Some delegations blow it by missing bill hearings or being otherwise disorganized. We never miss a hearing, because Del. Paul Stull keeps track of the details. Chairman Stull did a great job again this year, keeping the delegation focused on the bills and the work.

House of Delegates: The full House dealt with some major issues this Session. Unfortunately, we failed to deal with the most significant issue facing Maryland. We passed the single most important piece of environmental legislation in Maryland's history. The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund legislation went through a number of changes. Unfortunately, the bill is worse in its final form than it was before it went through amendment. Septic system users were exempt from the first bill, now they'll pay a $30 per year fee, just like all public sewer users. The Bay is dying; its ability to sustain aquatic life is in serious jeopardy. This bill will provide funds to finally start to fix the real problem - pollution from treatment plants that don’t meet state and federal discharge requirements. It is too bad that the amendment to exempt these septic users was rejected mostly along party lines.

We balanced the budget, but that's really nothing to brag about. The state’s Constitution requires us to do so, and we can't leave until it's done.

We passed the Living Wage Act, making it a requirement to pay contractors on state contracts (exceeding $100,000) $10.50 per hour, but given that the House leadership couldn't muster a veto-proof vote, I expect Governor Ehrlich to veto that measure.

Speaker Mike Busch: Once again, the Speaker can claim that he led the defeat of the slots initiative. This is good if you're pre-disposed against gambling, but risky if your alternative is the most significant tax increase in Maryland's history. I suspect that the Governor will begin to criss-cross Maryland this summer, claiming that he was able to hold off this massive tax increase. Likewise, Speaker Busch will claim that he slew the slots monster. He lost some ground with the rural Democrats, many of whom abandoned him on the tax votes.

Governor Ehrlich: See above. Besides slots, the Governor will be viewed as a big winner this Session. He scored big with the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, both by an aggressive and proactive strategy in both Chambers, and by co-opting the Democrats’ traditional strong base on a major environmental initiative. He also carried the day with his minority business enterprise bills, once again declaring victory in traditional Democratic territory.

Last, but far from least, this Governor has successfully obtained legislative approval to create a Secretary for the Office of Disability Programs. Call it a trifecta, Bob Ehrlich winning, placing, and showing on three major initiatives that Democrats usually claim.

So, we end much like we began. We (and I mean all of us) are facing a billion dollar structural deficit in next year’s state budget. Slots revenue is at least two years away, so unless we approve a major tax increase, we're looking at deep and dramatic spending cuts.

I worry about the effects of these cuts on county and town governments. They've already been forced to raise local taxes, and would have to do so again. So while the winners and losers are somewhat undetermined, my hope is that Marylanders are not the big losers in the end.

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