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January 24, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 – Part 2

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

January 18, 2005 – Week one, in full swing! I mentioned some potential rules changes in Part One. Those changes were proposed on Opening Day but were postponed until today on the mutual agreement of Speaker Mike Busch and Minority Leader George Edwards (R., Garrett).

Those rules changes made it to the floor last week. The changes were:

  1. The minority leader, not the Speaker of The House, would assign the minority party members to the standing committees. Currently, the speaker assigns all members to the committees, and as demonstrated last week, can remove them for partisan political purposes. Under our proposed change, the speaker would retain his prerogative to establish the overall number of minority members to each committee.

  2. The Minority Caucus professional staff does not have access to the House chamber. Under the rules governing decorum, the speaker decides who can come onto the floor. The speaker's staff can come and go at will, including Tom Lewis (the speaker's chief of staff), Kristen Jones (speaker's legal counsel), and John Favazzo (speaker's legal counsel). These folks presumably work for the whole chamber, but I don't think anyone really believes that. We have two professional staff members that work for our caucus; this amendment would allow them to access the chamber without having to give sensitive paperwork to an employee of the speaker to get it to the minority leadership.

  3. The Speaker assigns the members to conference committees. Conference committees are created when the House and Senate pass differing versions of the same bill, and are tasked with working out a compromise for both bodies.

A perfect example of the dilemma occurred during the recent Special Session. We dealt with one of the most important issues facing Maryland over the course of 48 hours, and it all came down to a conference committee. There were no Republican delegates or senators on that conference. An arrogant legislative majority silenced the voices of millions of Republican voters statewide.

Following a spirited (?) debate, the House GOP Caucus got slammed. A vote along party lines killed the three amendments. The counter-arguments consisted of the following:

  1. The changes are unnecessary. The Speaker is more than fair in how he assigns members, and this change would upset hundreds of years of history.

  2. The Speaker's staff is non-partisan; they work for the whole chamber, not just the Democrats.

      Respecting the nature of this website, I won't use the term I want to in describing the majority responses to our rules changes. However, low paid employees of horse farms get the job of “mucking” out the stalls, which gives you some idea of the term to which I refer. If Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) is so fair, how does one explain the plantation-style tactics employed to "beat down" Minority Whip Tony O'Donnell (R., Calvert) for his comments this summer? Seems to me that Speaker Busch will use a riding crop whenever one of the field workers gets out of line.

      The idea that the speaker's staff is non-partisan is also a little silly. The three people I mentioned above are excellent; the quality of their work is beyond reproach. They are dedicated, committed, and capable. Unfortunately, they are also absolutely political. They advise Speaker Busch on political strategy; they help line up votes; and they facilitate trade-offs to get votes when things are tough.

      To allege that they work equally for all members flies in the face of the work I have seen them do. I have seen them distribute conference reports to majority members, miraculously running short of copies when they get to minority members.

      Tom Lewis serves as the eyes and ears for Delegate Busch, watching floor conduct for signs of trouble. He coordinates discussion, gets inside advice on parliamentary procedure, and whispers to Mr. Busch just before the gavel falls.

      Could be a coincidence, but probably not.

      So each rule went down on a party line vote. We asked for roll call votes, to see if we could peel away a few majority members. We picked up three fairly conservative Democrats, but no big defections.

      Rumor had it that Speaker Busch was toying with a rules change of his own. He had contemplated proposing a restriction on the time available for a member to explain their vote. Currently, members get two minutes (when the speaker chooses) to explain their vote. His idea was to reduce that to one minute per member. I guess he decided that this would just be going too far.

      January 19, 2005 – Today was a big day in the 90-day cycle. The annual beg-a-thon dominates the day, and Gov. Robert Ehrlich unveils his budget. This year the ceremonial release was a BIG deal.

      The beg-a-thon is what we call the annual Board of Public Works School Construction Appeal. This year was no different, with a large contingent from Frederick County. Several Board of Education members, County Commissioner Jan Gardner, staff from the BOE, and most of the delegation gathered to ask for a larger share of the pie state’s school construction allocation.

      Governor Ehrlich told us our best hope for an amount closer to what we actually need is to back a slots bill. He promised an additional $100 million towards school construction if a slots bill passed the legislature.

      One uncomfortable moment was Del. Joe Bartlett (R., 4th, Frederick Co.), who has been staunch in his opposition to slots, standing there listening to the governor advocate for a slots bill as a way to dramatically increase school construction funding in Frederick County.

      Another weird moment came when Acting (should be permanent) Superintendent Linda Burgee asked the governor for the state to come up with its fair share of funding. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer leapt at that, and told Mrs. Burgee to turn around and look at the portrait at the back of the room.

      The portrait he pointed to was Parris Glendening's, and Mayor/Governor/Comptroller Schaefer told her that former Governor Glendening put Maryland several billion dollars in debt and that Governor Ehrlich had spent the last two years digging out of that hole.

      Tradition holds that the governor gives the budget analysts in the Department of Legislative Services extra time to review his budget submission, and that the legislative leadership gets early insight into the programs and initiatives of the administration in advance of the formal budget release.

      That process worked great during the years before divided government. Under our current circumstance, Governor Ehrlich found every decision he contemplated the subject of a front-page news story, especially those daily papers favorable to the speaker and the Senate president.

      So Governor Ehrlich held a closed meeting with the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate immediately before his afternoon press event today. He used the tools of modern mass communication to take advantage of a fairly optimistic and positive budget.

      You can read the details in the newspaper. My take on it is the inside stuff. In the closed meeting with leadership, Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert) pointed out that Calvert and Anne Arundel counties received the lowest overall percentage increase of any counties in Maryland.

      It just so happens that Anne Arundel County is the home of Speaker of the House Mike Busch. Calvert just happens to be where President Miller rests his head. Senator Miller was curious if there might be some rational nexus between his and Busch's opposition to Ehrlich's policy agenda and the relatively low percentage increase in funding for their home counties. Hmmmmm, I wonder?

      If it matters to you (and I sure hope it does), Frederick County received the second highest percentage increase in local aid of any jurisdiction in the state. Maybe divided government isn't so bad after all!

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