Lawmakers head into overdrive

March 05, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER


It's been hectic and tense, but the first half of this year's General Assembly likely has been just a dress rehearsal for what's coming next.

With only five full weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers are about to put in even longer hours as the issues - and the debates - intensify between now and the final day, known as Sine Die, April 10.

"I think the workload has been fairly steady, but it will get significantly heavier in the next couple of weeks," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.


More than 2,700 pieces of legislation have been filed so far. Last year, just over 2,600 were filed during the entire session - including emergency bills filed toward the session's end.

"There are more bills in the Senate than ever in my memory," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"It's been a very unusual session so far. There's been an enormous amount of bills and some pretty contentious issues so far," Donoghue said.

Much of the contention started at the very beginning of the session in January, when legislators spent most of the first three weeks voting to override 17 of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's vetoes from last year's session - including a number of controversial election bills.

"We're off to a historic start with overriding vetoes," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Washington/Frederick. "We've never had that before."

Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, voted against most of the overrides, but especially opposed the three vetoed election bills. They permit voters to vote absentee on demand, to vote early and to vote outside their designated precincts. Myers and other Republicans contended that without more time to prepare for such changes before this year's elections, the state could be vulnerable to widespread voter fraud - particularly with potentially close races for governor and the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.

On Friday, Myers was one of only three members of the House Ways and Means Committee to vote against sending a bill to the full House that will prevent the state from using its touch-screen voting terminals this year, reverting instead to the optical-scan system used in elections past. Using the optical-scan system, the bill's sponsors argue, will allow a paper record of a voter's ballot choices; such records aren't available with touch-screen terminals.

Providing optical-scan systems throughout the state will cost an estimated $12.5 million. Myers said proponents of the bill were "bowing to the wishes of a very few, and wasting money" by putting the touch-screen systems already purchased "on the shelf."

The election itself, he said, is "too fresh" for major action on other issues.

"Everyone has their own agenda," he said. But some of the contention he predicted early in the session has not materialized as legislators avoid controversial issues, he said.

Choosing sides

One controversy the House did not avoid, however, was approval of public funding for embryonic stem cell research. All five Washington County delegates voted against the measure on Friday, but it was approved by a margin of 85-54.

"I'm surprised at the number of people who voted party line rather than according to their conscience," Myers said. "I totally disagree with embryonic stem cell" research, he said. "I think you're playing with life."

The issue faces a more uncertain outcome in the Senate, where Mooney and other Republicans - as well as a few Democrats - plan to filibuster a similar bill when it reaches the floor this week. On Friday, the Senate sent the bill back to committee for tweaking. Mooney said he's not sure how the issue will be decided.

"There are only 14 Republican senators; we have to have at least five Democrats join us" to sustain a filibuster, he said, and he believes there will be six.

"At least for a while, there's going to be a filibuster," Munson predicted. "Several Democrats do not like this bill."

If the bill should pass, Munson said, "I guess the governor will veto it. It's still going to be a very emotional issue."

One of the problems, he said, is that the ethics of the issue have been outpaced by science.

"We should have had these discussions a long time ago," he said.

Hurdles ahead

"Aside from the very high profile issues like stem cells and gay marriage, most decisions are yet to come," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington. "We have done a lot of work on the easy issues."

The House Judiciary Committee last month killed a bill for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. An attempt to petition the bill for a full House vote failed when House Speaker Michael E. Busch refused to let the petition be introduced. Had the bill passed, the amendment would have been placed on this year's ballot for voter approval.

"I'm very disappointed the Democrats refused to allow a constitutional amendment to go to the people for a vote in 2006," Shank said.

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