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Advertise on the Tentacle

January 31, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 – Part 3

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

January 29, 2005

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Picture, if you will, Speaker of the House Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) mimicking R&B great Aretha Franklin, dancing down the back hallway of the first floor of the State House. What could possibly prompt a distinguished Marylander to undertake such bizarre behavior? Would you believe it was the annual State of the State speech?

Week three revealed both high political drama and pathetic partisan posturing. We started off with a bang, with news reports confirming the rumored increase in HMO insurance policy premiums.

MAMSI, Kaiser Permanente, and Aetna all announced an immediate increase in consumer premiums based on the recent General Assembly override of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s veto of the medical malpractice bill.

CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield has yet to announce their plans but likely will wait until the furor dies down over their competition before they follow suit.

If you recall the floor debate and Governor Ehrlich’s veto message, a major component of that veto action was that it was unfair to structure a reimbursement fund for doctors by taxing people who choose to buy HMO-style insurance.

Immediately following the veto override, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate celebrated the “good first step” towards tort reform and the creation of the reimbursement fund. Some doctors (including Frederick-based Foris Surgical Group) re-opened their practices, although all continued to call for broader reforms.

Last Tuesday, The Washington Post and The (Baltimore) Sun reported that HMO policyholders had begun receiving notices about the premium increases. Just as you would expect, people who got these notices were outraged.

Calls to delegates and senators started almost immediately. Funny thing, though. The calls went to members who voted on both sides of the issue. For those of us who voted against the bill or to sustain the Governor’s veto, it was a fairly simple explanation.

The members who voted to override the veto faced a more complex challenge. There were so many calls that some enterprising delegates and senators responsible for the tax increase decided they better check into why their plan had gone awry.

Calls were made to the state insurance commissioner, Al Redmer. Al’s name is familiar to long time readers, as he was the House minority leader during my first General Assembly session. Several committee chairs contacted his office to see what he had done to resist the premium increases.

It turns out that he didn’t resist the increase at all. In fact, he issued a letter to the three companies allowing an automatic premium increase in response to the recent legislative action.

AUTOMATIC? The House and Senate leadership went into a tizzy, and the metro newspaper reporters came running, notepads in hand. Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert), House Speaker Mike Busch, and House Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman John Hurson (D., Montgomery) held a press conference to attack Commissioner Redmer’s decision.

They accused Mr. Redmer of political manipulation of the Maryland Insurance Commission, of using his office to allow the insurance industry a rate increase to prove Governor Ehrlich right.

Senator Miller went so far as to call for Redmer’s resignation, a dedicated and committed public servant. Mr. Miller essentially dismissed Mr. Redmer as a political hack (a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black).

Speaker Busch has lamented the reign of Commissioner Redmer, recalling the service of Mr. Redmer’s predecessor, Steven Larsen. Mr. Larsen is widely celebrated for his tenure, as he was the one who stood up against the conversion of Care First to a for-profit corporation.

Imagine their shock and disappointment when Commissioner Redmer produced a letter, written by former Commissioner Larsen, allowing a similar previous automatic increase based on legislative action.

So why all of the negative energy by the majority legislative leaders? The fact is that they are running from a bad vote. The veto override has not solved the tort crisis; doctors are not satisfied; and the HMO premium increase was unnecessary since Governor Ehrlich added money in his budget to reimburse doctors for the malpractice premium increases.

If you’re wondering, Al Redmer is not going anywhere. In fact, he’ll serve as an important reminder of a terribly bad policy decision motivated solely by an attempt to embarrass Governor Ehrlich that went as badly as it could.

* * * * * * * * * *

The week ended with the State of the State speech, a constitutional requirement for the governor to communicate his view of the year past and the year ahead.

Even with all of the partisan rancor and discomfort, the arrival of the Governor in the Chamber was a time of celebration. Hugs, kisses, and friendly handshakes were plentiful, and both Republicans and Democrats were standing in line to get the Governor’s attention.

Since the speech is given to a Joint Session, the Chamber is a little more crowded than usual. The front gallery area was reserved for the media and the Governor’s guests, including his entire cabinet.

As in previous years, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer received the biggest guest applause. Above the Floor in the balcony, I could see Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan.

Mr. Duncan and Mr. O’Malley weren’t applauding the Governor’s arrival, and one paper even reported that they did not have a reserved seat in the balcony. Mayor O’Malley apparently had to sit behind a pillar, which I guess explains the sour look on his face throughout the speech.

I guess it’s okay to have obstructed view seats at a Bruce Springsteen concert, but not a State of the State speech.

Governor Ehrlich deviated from his prepared remarks to speak for about six minutes on the subject of respect. He reminisced about his days in the House of Delegates, how a governor was shown the respect of a fair hearing on an administration bill, how he always worked with Democrat governors to amend bills in committee and on the Floor.

He suggested that attacking someone’s personal reputation to make political points is beneath us all (think Commissioner Redmer). He said that ideological differences make the General Assembly stronger, and that our democracy depends on the battle of ideas to remain strong.

There weren’t many (if any) Democrats applauding during this section of the speech. The rest of the speech was very strong, his strongest effort so far. He laid out a powerful agenda, including teen driver safety, education, economic development, and witness intimidation protections. He also mentioned slots, what with the advent of machines on our border with Pennsylvania.

I loved one aspect of his speech, another one of his infamous ad libs. My committee held a waste-of-time, political-witch-hunt hearing this past summer on some Maryland tourism commercials. These advertisements feature Governor Ehrlich involved in helping bring visitors to Maryland by doing their weekend chores for them.

Democrats accused him of using his office to produce campaign ads, even though these ads ran in other states. In his State of the State speech, he spoke about how tourism had increased 34% over the last year.

With a sly grin on his face, he looked up from the podium and said: “Maybe those ads worked after all!”

After the speech, Doug Duncan was asked by a reporter why he hadn’t clapped at all during Governor Ehrlich’s remarks. Mr. Duncan retorted, “I did clap when he left.”

Looks like some people didn’t get the respect thing after all.

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