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Some good, some bad and some ugly

General Assembly gives preview of upcoming campaign

General Assembly gives preview of upcoming campaign

April 16, 2006|By TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

It was the year of the override, the choke and the rat.

And perhaps most telling, it was a prelude to what's shaping up to be one of the most heated political contests in decades.

This year's Maryland General Assembly session officially ended April 10, but with serious issues left dangling and battle lines drawn for the upcoming elections, it could be difficult to tell where the lawmaking ended and the campaign began.

The session started and ended with battles between the Republican governor and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate over controversial bills that Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed, only to have the General Assembly vote to override an unusual number of cases - in an attempt, some said, to wrest the governor's office from the first Republican to hold it in more than 30 years.

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Seventeen vetoes from last year were overridden in January, including vetoes of controversial bills to change the state's election laws.

Those elections changes, particularly to allow voting for several days before Election Day, are "a train wreck ready to happen," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, who tried unsuccessfully to delay them until after the general election in November.

The end of the session saw more overrides, though not as many as the minority Republicans anticipated. Still, the veto override of a bill to stop the state from taking over administration of a group of failing Baltimore schools prompted Del. Robert A. McKee to charge that lawmakers from that city were fusing the session with this fall's state elections.

"I think we saw the unveiling of the O'Malley campaign in committee and on the floor," said McKee, R-Washington, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee with Del. Salima Marriott, chairman of the Baltimore City Delegation, who sponsored the bill.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, had been touting improvements in the Baltimore schools before the state's plan to take over 11 of them that failed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act was revealed.

As legislators were considering Marriott's bill, O'Malley sent letters to House members calling the takeover a political stunt while they were meeting in the chamber - an act that angered even some Democrats. Speaker Michael E. Busch stopped House pages from distributing the letters before all members received them.

And in the last day of the session, Busch and Ehrlich attempted to broker a deal to avoid threatened 72 percent rate increases for customers of Baltimore Gas & Electric. But even with the threat of a special session to resolve the crisis, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller missed a scheduled meeting with them, going on instead with the Senate agenda.

In the time drained away by the BGE negotiations, one of the most significant pieces of legislation considered was lost.

An omnibus bill to increase penalties for sexual predators and tighten monitoring of convicted sex offenders, discussed for the entire session, languished amid the utility rates controversy and arguments over whether the bill should include mandatory minimum sentences.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington and a major supporter of the bill, lamented the time spent hammering out a bill that most thought would see easy passage.

"It was a profound waste of time and a terrible missed opportunity," he said. The bill "would've gone a long way to make our communities safer."

The bill's 11th-hour demise had Shank's colleague on the House Judiciary Committee, Del. Neil Quinter, D-Howard, contemplating sending a letter to Ehrlich, Miller and Busch asking for a special session just to deal with sex offenders.

All choked up

For the first time in decades, the alleged weight of government business prompted those lawmakers with a bent for cabaret to cancel the annual "Legislative Follies," a scholarship fundraiser featuring the legislators poking fun at each other, at the governor and at anyone else remotely connected with the General Assembly.

While some speculated that the show was canceled simply because of election-year tensions, the irony of calling it off in a year when there was so much fodder was lost on nobody.

Beyond the usual political shenanigans were the eyebrow-raising behavior of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the John Giannetti choking incident and the luckless transition to the new wing of the House office building.

Schaefer raised the ire of females all over the capital - not to mention the father of an office worker in Ehrlich's office - when he instructed the young woman to "walk again" so he could ogle her from behind during a packed meeting of the Board of Public Works. He eventually apologized for the embarrassment the incident caused her, but had more Annapolitans scratching their heads at a subsequent meeting when he insisted that an attendee stand up and sing.

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