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Session opens, politicking starts

January 15, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Even as political wars were waged behind the scenes, Maryland's elected officials pledged a spirit of cooperation for the 90-day legislative session that began Wednesday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said lawmakers should approach the session with an attitude of "collegiality and respect," debating weighty issues without resorting to personal attacks.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, addressing the House of Delegates, said that when he and Busch served together in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were taught to respect the institution.

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Ehrlich said he expects to encounter differences of opinion, but said disagreements can lead to creative solutions.

"It's a positive tension. From that positive tension we can get results," he said.

After the ceremonial opening day speeches were over, the politicking began. Democrats in the House and the Senate took steps to override three of Ehrlich's vetoes from last session.

Two of them are local bills to increase vehicle registration fees in Montgomery County and include Baltimore City's private child support workers in the state's retirement system.

A third would set minimum energy efficiency standards for some new appliances.

Republicans, in turn, asked for a separate vote on last year's tax bill, which would have created a 2 percent tax on managed care health insurance premiums, added a 10 percent surcharge on the corporate income tax and closed a corporate tax loophole.

As Del. Richard B. Weldon predicted minutes before the session began, a vote on the veto overrides was delayed until today.

In preparation for a debate, Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, had two books of rules on his desk for quick reference. One was the House Rulebook and the other was Mason's Manual, which covers any rules that aren't spelled out in the rulebook.

As the parliamentarian for the House Republican Caucus, it's Weldon's job to use the rules to his party's advantage.

In the Senate, an anticipated rule change prompted Republicans to protest by refusing to support the re-election of Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. as Senate president.

Miller plans to change the rules to make it virtually impossible for those in the minority to filibuster. Republicans have used the threat of extended debate to influence legislation.

Under the rules change, the 14 Republicans in the 47-member body would need the help of five Democrats to filibuster. Right now they need two.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who said he's never voted against Miller in the 13 years of his Senate career, said he and other Republicans abstained from the vote in order to send a message.

"It was not meant to be a thumb in the eye of Mike Miller," Munson said.

Washington County lawmakers said they expect the next three months to be charged with conflict, particularly over the state budget, which is facing a $750 million deficit.

Ehrlich has repeatedly said he will block any effort to raise sales or income taxes.

But Busch and other Democrats said the state will be forced to make painful budget cuts to education, health care and transportation without a major tax increase.

"I think it's going to be a very contentious session with lots of healthy dialogue and heated debate," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, said it will be important for the state to continue spending within its means.

Although lawmakers were gearing up for the business of the session, they also tried to instill a sense of history in the making as they convened for the 418th time.

Busch, D-Anne Arundel, noted that this year is the 100th anniversary of the House chamber.

"We as legislators will come and go but this great institution will always remain," he said.

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