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February 28, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 – Part 7

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Corrective bills describe legislation submitted to fix serious flaws in measures that have been passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor. House Bill 2, approved along party lines in the December Special Session, vetoed by the Governor, and overridden (again along party lines), is now the subject of a corrective bill.

Not just a little touch up, mind you. Speaker Michael Busch’s bill is a major policy change necessitated by a very poorly constructed Special Session bill.

Last Wednesday, a neurosurgeon from Annapolis criticized the new law at a joint hearing of my Health committee and The Economic Matters Committee. He accused us of passing band-aid bills to fix a problem we created.

Not me, doctor, I voted against House Bill 2, and I opposed the attempts to override the Governor's veto!

Sadly, during that Special Session, minority caucus members brought up many of the changes being considered now that are necessary to make this thing work. Those points were ignored by the majority Democrats because, unfortunately, that would have led to the perception that Governor Bob Ehrlich was on the right track with his bill, which had been summarily dismissed by both the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.

I sat through a three-hour-plus hearing on one bill, drafted by the Speaker and his staff, to fix problems with House Bill 2 from the Special Session. Some of the problems were so serious that Medical Mutual, the one dependable Maryland insurer of doctor's malpractice liability, was considering pulling out altogether with the "fixes" in HB2 and now the corrective bill.

I found it puzzling and ironic that the same folks who were quoted in the media after the Special Session touting the successes in HB2 are now pleading for support of a bill to go back and fix the problems that were created by HB2.

* * * * * * * * * *

Slot machines are back, and back in a big way! The House Ways and Means Committee has been in and out, up and down, and back and forth for a third year in row. The difference is that it looks like something might happen this year.

The operative word here is something. We've once again covered the full range of possibilities on slots. The Senate has already passed their version of a slots bill, and it includes no specific locations.

Here's a breakdown of the issues so far this week.

  1. President of The Senate Mike Miller (D., Calvert) and the Senate prefer the placement of slot machines at horse tracks. They will (and have) acknowledged that there will have to be some off track locations, but it was not a mistake that there were NO locations specified in the final Senate bill. I expect that Rocky Gap, National Harbor, and/or Cambridge might be those off track locations.

  2. Speaker Of The House Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) prefers the approach that places slots facilities at the edges of the state, designed to draw Marylanders away from Dover, DE, and Charles Town, WV. It also doesn't hurt the Speaker's strategy to "spotlight" Republican members who might be inclined to support slots as long as they were placed somewhere else. Frederick County, Harford County, and other rural areas play into that strategy.

  3. There are a number of special interests weighing in on this debate. Bill Rickman, the owner of Delaware Park and Ocean Downs, has been lobbying to remove the municipal location exemption. I understand that he was successful in this endeavor. That matters to us, as he also owns a large parcel on Bowman Farm Road east of the Frederick Municipal Airport, in the City of Frederick. John Poole, owner of The Cracked Claw, has contacted the delegation to encourage consideration of his business for slots. Unfortunately, he is outside of the distance specified in the bill approved last Friday. Fire and rescue spokespeople have argued for a special dedication of some of the revenue, as have rural health and economic development interests.

I've never seen as much vote counting as I did on Thursday and Friday last week. The normal leisurely pace of the legislature has been thrown upside down.

Instead of the usual several weeks between a committee hearing, a Second Reader floor debate, and a third reader vote, this House slots bill went from a bill hearing on Tuesday to a second reader vote on Thursday to a third reader vote for final passage on Friday.

Remember, this is the same bill that languished in committee throughout both of the last two sessions, coming to a committee vote to kill it during the last week of session last year.

What changed? For one thing, a lot of the money goes to school construction. For another, slots won't go to either Baltimore City or Prince George’s County, although they get a lot of the revenue. Finally, I believe that Senate President Miller's rhetoric about obstructionist delegates creating a problem for Democrats statewide is gaining traction.

On second reader, when the bill was opened for amendments, there were several "poison pills" thrown up. One of the most interesting was a debate between African-American delegates over minority contracting set-asides. The Legislative Black Caucus took one position, and individual members (some of whom had missed the meeting when the vote was taken) had a different opinion.

In the end, none of the amendments were adopted. On third reader, the Chamber was packed, with TV cameras lining the walls. The bill passed by a vote of 71-66, with 71 being the absolute minimum number of votes needed to pass a bill.

The legislative story of the year will be what happens now. All of you readers concerned about slot machines flooding into Frederick need to be aware that there is no guaranty that this will ever happen.

The slots bill from the Senate is so different from the House version that the conference committee would normally have a tremendous amount of work ahead. Multiply that by a factor of a million or two.

Both Speaker Busch and Senate President Miller have proven to be tough negotiators, very capable of fighting until all of the fight is gone in order to prevail.

Mr. Busch was quoted after the final vote saying: "I see no reason to compromise; I think the House Bill is fine." Hidden message: We're not backing down at all.

So that leaves us to ponder what this all means. My guess is that the bill may not make it out of conference; hence no bill would be presented to the Governor for his signature.

Wouldn't that be sad? All of this time and effort wasted, only to have it all disappear because the legislative leadership cannot agree.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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