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February 7, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 - Part 4

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

January is in the rear view mirror, but the legislative road ahead is full of twists, turns, and hazards.

I thought maybe we'd have a little less interesting week than the weeks past, but any week featuring a Board of Public Works meeting is unpredictable.

We heard from Chief Judge Robert Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who gave his bi-annual State of the Judiciary speech. He focused on judges' salaries (too low), the number of judges (not enough), and the condition of technology in courthouses across the State (outdated).

His speech was interesting, but his delivery was not considered riveting. One junior delegate was overheard to exclaim: "I don't know what he said because I slept through the whole thing".

Unfortunately, an intrepid reporter happened to be standing within earshot. Here's a rule of thumb: If a reporter is standing nearby, especially if they have a notebook in their hand, your comments are on the record.

No mulligan, no take backs, you just have to live with the words that escaped your yap. In this case, the junior delegate benefited from a considerate reporter; otherwise you would have read an embarrassing quote.

I follow the rule that says if I'm talking about stuff I wouldn't want to see printed, I look to see if a reporter is present. This method is far from foolproof, so it's essential to have a relationship with the news media that is mutually respectful.

* * * * * * * * * *

Several inches of snow blanketed Annapolis, so the walk to and from the State House to the office building was treacherous, especially later in the day when the sun goes down.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week was Farm Week in Annapolis. On Tuesday, the Farm Bureau Women held a nice luncheon for delegates and senators. Several Frederick County farm fa milies came down.

Thursday night was the annual Ag Dinner at Michaels in Glen Burnie. I've written about it before. It is a wonderful evening of good food, great conversation, and award presentations to Maryland farmers who have given a lifetime of service to agriculture.

Our rock star governor, Robert Ehrlich, made an appearance, and as he usually does, he brought the room to its feet. He was upstaged, though. He made the mistake (?) of bringing the First Lady with him. He promised last year that she'd be there, and he made good on that promise. I think he (the Guv) thought he'd get in and out quickly, missing the dinner. He was there to hand out the Hall of Fame awards, and there were only three families perceiving this prestigious honor.

The first winner was a family from the Eastern Shore. They run a huge grain operation, and they are active in a variety of state programs. The patriarch of the family came up to accept the award, and proceeded to speak for a good half hour.

He spoke about his early days on the farm, using a mule and horse combo to plant the crops. His talk was essentially a farm history lesson of the last 40 years, and he was engaging and funny.

Unfortunately, he was also very looooonnnnnggggg. I watched a little bit of squirming from Agriculture Secretary Lewis Reilly, and while the Governor is too classy a guy to let his discomfort show, I sensed anxiousness from his staff and escorts.

Another observation is that many delegates and senators are disingenuous. They show up for the Ag Dinner social hour, and mingle throughout the hall to visit with farmers who come down for the dinner.

As soon as the lights dim to signal the start of the dinner and program, a number of these guys and gals sneak out and return to Annapolis. This year, they got exposed. Because Governor Ehrlich had to return to the Capital for other business, the whole evening program had to change.

The introduction of delegates and senators was postponed until after the awards were handed out. Following the awards, dinner was served. As dinner was being cleaned up, the Master of Ceremonies asked the state legislators to please stand and be recognized.

The large number (30-40) of rural legislators that had been in the room earlier had dwindled to about 15. Some of those missing were obvious by their absence.

I'll bet they'll all be back next year (think election cycle). Wonder if the farmers will mention what a great meal they missed by skipping out early?

Note that I mentioned rural legislators. Among the missing were urban representatives, as there were only a few delegates and senators who represent a dense urban population. We're going to always have a problem explaining the importance of agriculture if we don't have urban representation at these events.

U. S. Senator Paul Sarbanes (D, MD) was there (it was his birthday), and he gave a short talk on the importance of agriculture. I was really impressed, though, by some informal remarks by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R., 1st). I had never heard him give a speech, and I thought he was amazing. Laid back but inspirational, his speech set the perfect tone for a room full of farmers.

* * * * * * * * * *

I told you that the Board of Public Works was unpredictable and always interesting. Last week's meeting was no different. During a discussion of a minority set-aside contract, Comptroller William Donald Schafer asked when the state would end set aside contracting.

He pointed out that these were never meant to be a permanent part of procurement law, that minority preference programs should be phased out at some point. Comptroller Schafer says exactly what he thinks. He even had a campaign slogan that read: "He says what you think."

Governor Ehrlich expressed the view that these programs would end at some point in the future, but indicated that the need still exists.

In a flash, faster than a speeding bullet, the Democrats and the DC/Baltimore news media rushed to brand Comptroller Schafer and Governor Ehrlich as insensitive to minority contracting and minority-owned businesses.

This is the same administration that passed landmark legislation last year (with a lot of work from your humble correspondent) to mandate a hard quota of 10% of all state contracts to be awarded to minority-owned businesses.

Instead of stepping back from the political rhetoric to acknowledge that we should all be committed to a contracting environment free from bias, the Democrats are going for the cheap victory by taking the controversy completely out of context.

I've mentioned before that the Governor is passionate about his beliefs, and he can speak bluntly about matters of import to Maryland citizens. He's much smarter than I am, but he handles things a lot differently than I might. Not a criticism, just an observation.

Frankly, I'd much rather have a chief executive in office that is truly committed to lifting barriers to minority business success than one who talks a lot and accomplishes absolutely nothing. I consider the business owners who join in with legislative leaders in criticizing the Schafer and Ehrlich remarks hypocrites, unworthy of sympathy.

I'd rather they recognize that success should be measured by works, not words!

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