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January 14, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2004 Special Session – Part 2

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

When I finished writing at 2:40 A.M. on December 30, the floor of the House chamber was littered with the detritus of a two-day Special Session.

We all knew as we left Annapolis to return home that Gov. Robert Ehrlich was going to veto the medical malpractice bill. The House and Senate majorities both held celebrations before the news media to tout the "compromise.”

MedChi (the Maryland Medical/Chiurgical Faculty) and the Maryland Hospital Association announced their combined support for the compromise bill, both suggesting that while the bill doesn't solve the problem, it is better than nothing.

Better than nothing! In my two years serving in the House of Delegates, I've learned to listen for that statement. All "better than nothing" means is that the person making the statement has sold out, and "better than nothing" gives them the necessary excuse.

MedChi’s statement would lead one to believe that the medical professions were solidly united behind this "better than nothing" bill. Likewise, when the Maryland Hospital Association takes a position, their member hospitals get in line.

Governor Ehrlich held a press event to announce his veto of the "better than nothing" tort reform bill on January 10. The event was held in his Reception Room, a very fancy, large room on the second floor of the State House.

Pictures of every former Governor grace the walls, with most recent former Gov. Parris Glendening's infamous open-necked shirt portrait staring down on everyone who enters the room.

On Monday, the room was dominated by a six-foot leg cast, signed by 735 doctors, nurses, and hospital workers. All of the DC and Baltimore major media reps were there, along with many of the GOP legislators who had voted against the "better than nothing" bill at the end of the Special Session.

With a flourish, the door to the Governor's inner sanctum opened, and in walked more than 40 doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators. Dr. Gerrit Schipper was there, along with at least two other Frederick and Washington County doctors.

The most interesting observation was that the highest risk specialties, including OB/GYN, neurosurgery, and orthopedic surgery, were very well represented.

MedChi’s lock on Maryland's medical community appears to have blown apart. It seems that the doctors most affected by malpractice concerns were unwilling to go along with "better than nothing." At least one hospital administrator broke ranks with the hospital association, another major defection.

So the bill got vetoed, and House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller attacked Governor Ehrlich for failing to compromise on the HMO tax, and for missing a chance to adopt the "better than nothing" tort reforms.

With this backdrop, the Special Session was set to reconvene on Tuesday at 2:30 P.M. The motion to recess on December 30 called for reconvening at 10 A.M., but that all changed on Monday.

We were all in the Chamber at 2:30 P.M., ready to debate and legislate. Well, almost all of us were in the Chamber. The advertised start time slipped from 2:30 until 3:40 P.M., with no explanation from the Speaker or the Chief Clerk.

A bustle at the front of the Chamber heralded the arrival of Del. Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg (D., Baltimore). Del. Rosenberg had been in Israel with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and had flown back to participate in the Special Session.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Delegate Rosenberg had to be "shuttled" from Newark International Airport to Annapolis. Wonder how that was handled?

It turns out that Delegate Rosenberg's vote was essential to Speaker Busch's plan. I've written before about counting votes. It always comes down to the votes.

It takes 85 votes to override a gubernatorial veto. Governor Ehrlich and his team were working hard to get the votes necessary to sustain his veto. The Governor, Lt. Governor Michael Steele, and agency heads were working the phones like crazy.

At the same time, the Speaker and his leadership team were employing their substantial power to keep majority members in line. It turns out that Delegate Rosenberg's vote was the key to overriding the Governor's veto. Whatever it cost the Speaker to get him there, it had to be done.

Interesting observation that even though this override was the most important initiative of Speaker Busch, he needed Delegate Rosenberg ferried here from Israel to cast that vote. Remember, there are 97 Democratic votes [Del. Anthony Brown (D., Prince George’s) is serving in Iraq] at his disposal.

So the Speaker got his vote, and the Senate did, too. They were also able to override several other vetoes, but not the Living Wage or Tuition Cap tax increase. These were high on the Speaker's list, but the Senate Majority couldn't make the Kool-Aid sweet enough for their members to drink (think Jonestown).

In the end, "better than nothing" tort reform seemed to be good enough.

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