Thoughts, Observations, and Some Opinions, Too.
Now that the General Assembly Session is over, I welcome the opportunity to opine on a wide range of topics, freed from the burden of bi-partisanship.
I've been following the Virginia General Assembly debate over taxes and the budget. There are some startling similarities and just as striking differences.
The Virginia House and Senate Republican Caucuses sounded the victory trumpets in 1998 when then-Governor Jim Gilmore signed the repeal of the hated "car tax" into law. The Republicans celebrated their victory, and the unanimous vote indicated broad bi-partisan support.
They were so excited, those Virginia Republicans, that they offered to host other Republican state legislators in Richmond to train them in how to operate as a team, how to manage the message, and how to "spotlight" conservative Democrats.
That victory is now a distant and fading memory. Seventeen (17) Virginia Republicans abandoned their party this year to support a tax package advocated by Democratic Governor Mark Warner and the House Democratic Party.
With those 17 votes, the bill carried, and will become law. In addition to major tax increases, the bill delays the rollback of the car tax, which is basically another tax increase.
Rumors abound that the Virginia State GOP will actively recruit challengers to run against incumbent Republicans who supported the tax package.
I guess Virginia Republicans won't be inviting others down for training, huh?
I attended a policy announcement by President Bush on April 27th at the VA Hospital in Baltimore. The invitation came from Governor Robert Ehrlich's office, and came one-day prior to the event.
All I was told was to be at the hospital one hour before the 1 p.m. event, with photo ID in hand. They didn't know what the event was, what the announcement was, only that they wanted a few legislators who also happen to be veterans to be there.
I arrived an hour and a half early, and already the streets around the VA Hospital were crawling with Baltimore's finest. I was allowed to enter the parking garage, mostly because of the Delegate tags on my car (a pretty perk, I must say).
When I arrived in the lobby, I was shocked at the perceived take-over of the hospital. Uniformed and plainclothes Secret Service agents, Baltimore City Police, Maryland State Police, and VA Hospital uniformed security officers were everywhere!
Bomb dogs, metal detectors, snipers, and ear/hand microphones far outnumbered patients and medical services personnel. In fact, the poor vets seeking medical care (you know, the purpose of the hospital) were whisked out of the lobby to a back hallway.
Once I got checked in (about an hour after arriving), I was taken to a VIP (?) Room to wait. I wasn't sure what I was waiting for, but I poured myself a Coke, thankful that I did not have to stand around anymore. Unfortunately, as soon as I had finished pouring my soda, another agent told us we needed to go to the auditorium.
The auditorium was very small, with seating for around 70 people. Unfortunately, there were at least 100 people who wanted to witness whatever was going to happen.
That was bad enough. Folks, upon seeing the lack of chairs, started jockeying for position. Luckily, I found a seat quickly. Many others weren't so fortunate. In addition to the lack of seating, the small room was lit by klieg lights for the assembled TV crews. The room temperature had to be 85 degrees.
After another 25-minute wait, Governor Ehrlich, Mrs. Ehrlich, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Nelson Sabatini, and Maryland Veterans Affairs Secretary-designee George Owings were escorted into the room to much applause.
As soon as they were seated, the Secret Service went into full alert mode. All doors to the auditorium were secured, media people were pushed back from the rope line, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Veterans Secretary Anthony Principe, the head of safety and quality for Johns Hopkins and the administrator of the Baltimore VA hospital were escorted in.
Once they took their seats on the platform, President Bush entered the room. As you would expect, he received a standing ovation, including some folks who had just been grumbling behind me about many of his policy positions.
For the next 40 minutes, the President led a discussion of the use of digital images and documents as the future of medical information management. He set a 10-year goal to replace paper files with digital media, allowing patients to have their medical records easily transported between general practitioner, specialist, clinic, and hospital.
Also discussed was the need for computerized pharmaceutical prescriptions and drug distribution. The elimination of something as simple as transcription errors due to poor handwriting will actually save lives and millions of dollars.
The horror stories raised the hair on my arms, while the success of the VA hospitals across the country restored my faith in modern medicine. It was nice to see a bi-partisan gathering able to rise above the normal petty political interests to talk about the best interests of all Americans.
By the way, on my drive back to Brunswick, racing along I-95 in bumper to bumper traffic, I watched the three Marine helicopters fly overhead on their way back to the White House. For just a second or two, I couldn't help but wonder how nice it would be to have those resources at my disposal. I felt guilty about it afterward, though.
Last Thursday's Washington area print media was full of stories about a group of delegates who traveled to Pennsylvania to meet with their counterparts. Their purpose was to spread the anti-slots message across the Mason-Dixon Line.
Del. Peter Franchot (D., Montgomery Co.) and Curt Anderson (D., Baltimore) led the group. I've written about Delegate Franchot in my journal entries, but suffice it say that this is the same guy who co-sponsored previous slots legislation but is now the Supreme Commander of the Anti-Slots Crusaders. Delegate Anderson is also opposed to any attempt to bring slots to Maryland. Both advocate broad-based revenue increases (TAXES) as the best way to pay for the services Maryland desires.
The Pennsylvania legislature has ALREADY approved a slots bill, one version by the House, and a different version in the Senate. The Franchot/Anderson duo is probably trying to raise concerns to create problems for a Conference Committee.
These are the same tactics, aided and abetted by the Maryland House leadership, that have denied Governor Ehrlich's slot machine initiative a vote the last two years.
My favorite sound bite comes from my new hero, Thomas Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association. "If I'm not mistaken, Maryland is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall and a disintegrating horse racing industry," he said. "If that's what they're here to sell, we don't want any."
Like 'em, love 'em, use 'em or refuse 'em, I still argue that ALL members of the Maryland State Legislature should be able to exercise their constitutional obligation and vote on the slots question. I suspect I know exactly why the Franchot/Anderson faction is spending time in Harrisburg. They know, as most of us already knew, that if slots are passed and signed into law in Pennsylvania, we'll have them in Maryland.