Unwritten rule lets legislators control bills in local areas

April 04, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Some of the most agonizing decisions for members of the Maryland General Assembly aren't about abortion, gun control or even taxes.

On those contentious issues, most lawmakers already have staked out their positions.

No, it's the small, sometimes innocuous-sounding issues that make lawmakers squirm in their chairs and worry whether to vote yes or no.

The reason: an unwritten rule called local courtesy.

Local courtesy represents the power of lawmakers to control legislation that only affects their local area.

Legislators want to uphold the tradition because they know that it won't be long before they will be asking their colleagues to support them on a local issue.


But as Washington County lawmakers have seen more than once this session, lawmakers are willing to violate the rule on issues that are thorny or could have a ripple effect statewide.

Members of the House Economic Matters Committee breached the rule March 27 when they voted 15-8 to kill legislation to restructure PenMar Development Corp. in Cascade.

Two days later, the House of Delegates came three votes away from killing another Washington County bill.

That bill, which supporters say will uphold the integrity of the county's tip jar gambling system, passed the House after supporters frequently evoked local courtesy.

A similar scenario could play out in the Senate, which must pass the bill by midnight April 12 for it to become law.

Firestorm of controversy

Local courtesy especially is important in Washington County, where the County Commissioners cannot make laws without state authority.

Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, maintains that local courtesy should have applied to the PenMar bill.

"Because we are a smaller county, because we are a Republican county, somehow I don't think local courtesy is applied fairly," Shank said.

Members of the House Economic Matters Committee disagreed. Listening to the bill's vocal opponents, a majority said they didn't want to get in the middle of a "family fight" by passing the PenMar bill.

Shank takes responsibility for the loss, saying that in retrospect the delegation should have pursued narrow legislation to address only accountability and oversight of the board charged with bringing jobs to the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade.

Instead, the board shakeup he initially proposed created a firestorm of controversy. Cascade residents came to the defense of board members, who argued that their progress made an overhaul unnecessary.

"It allowed the opponents to personalize it," Shank said.

By the time the delegation offered its watered-down proposal and the County Commissioners signed on, it was too late to save the legislation, he said.

"We were hung out to dry by the commissioners," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

When it came time for the crucial committee vote, Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck Davis, D-Prince George's, was asked about the committee's policy on local courtesy.

Davis replied that local courtesy is not a formally recognized policy and lawmakers always reserve the right to make up their own minds on bills. At the same time, it generally is followed unless a bill has statewide implications, he said.

Just before she voted to try to save the local Washington County bill, freshman Del. Susan Krebs, R-Carroll, called it one of the most difficult decisions she has had to make as a lawmaker.

A powerful issue

Shank argued the PenMar bill wasn't nearly as controversial as a Baltimore County bill to take waterfront property by eminent domain for a redevelopment project.

Homeowners came to Annapolis by the hundreds in the 2000 session, pleading for lawmakers not to take away their homes.

One lawmaker, who Shank declined to name, was reduced to tears. That legislator sympathized with the homeowners, but felt compelled to vote yes because of local courtesy.

"Local courtesy was that powerful," he said.

On that issue, which came to be known as Senate Bill 509, Shank and several Washington County lawmakers voted against local courtesy because they felt it morally was wrong.

The bill passed the House and Senate and was signed by then-Gov. Parris Glendening.

Washington County lawmakers also voted against local courtesy at the start of this legislative session when the Democrat-controlled legislature voted to override Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto of a Baltimore city liquor bill.

Shank argued that he was not voting against Baltimore city as much as he was voting to support Ehrlich and his veto power.

But that opposition might have come back to haunt Washington County lawmakers last week, when they were again forced to ask for local courtesy with the tip jar bill.

After a member of the majority party in their own delegation, Del. John P. Donoghue, stood up to argue against the bill, the bill came three votes away from being defeated.

A number of lawmakers from Baltimore city and Baltimore County voted against the bill, which is being heavily fought by effective liquor lobbyist Jay Schwartz.

Donoghue, D-Washington, also voted against the bill.

"I would like to think members of a delegation would honor local courtesy," McKee said.

Donoghue defended his right to disagree.

Donoghue last week also denied he had a conflict of interest on the bill. As a stockbroker for Legg Mason in Hagerstown, he once handled the investments of one of the bill's opponents, the Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association charitable foundation.

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