Democrats' votes curb debates in assembly

January 16, 1991|By John W. Freceand M. Dion Thompson | John W. Freceand M. Dion Thompson,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly's Democratic leaders demonstrated their control of the legislature yesterday, crushing a Republican effort to expand debate in the House of Delegates and making it easier for a legislative redistricting plan to survive a filibuster in the Senate.

The rule change proposed by House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, would have allowed delegates to speak against or propose amendments to bills sent to the floor by committees of which they are members. An unwritten House rule now forbids committee members from offering amendments to bills passed by their committee, or from opposing the bills until they are on the agenda for a final vote and are unalterable.

Republicans claimed that the proposal went to the heart of the democratic process and the guarantee of free speech, but it was defeated by a lopsided 110-26 vote. Only four Democrats voted for it, and the three Republicans who did not support it abstained.

In a gush of self-preservation, meanwhile, the Senate voted 40-7 to reduce by three the number of votes needed to limit debate on plans redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries. On all other Senate matters, a two-thirds majority -- or 32 votes -- is needed to close debate.

Maryland's Constitution requires the governor to submit a redistricting plan to the legislature. The Assembly then has 45 days to adopt its own plan. If it does not, the governor's plan goes into effect automatically.

Supporters of the rule change said it was needed because extended debate on redistricting plans has thwarted past legislative attempts to push through plans because the debate has gone beyond 45 days.

"We're the only state in the nation where the legislature does not draw its own lines," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. "It's not an attack on [Gov.] William Donald Schaefer. It's the mere fact that it's time that the legislature draw its own lines."

Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, said he opposed the rule change because it could weaken the Senate's long-standing rule on how many votes are needed to limit debate -- a device the Senate's small Republican caucus and others in minority positions have long cherished.

"It breaches the wall in the unlimited debate rule that the Senathas enjoyed since its beginning," he said.

In the House debate, Republican leaders had claimed that their idea was not a partisan move, but rather a "good government" proposal. House Minority Whip Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, offered statistics showing that the number of bills killed on the House floor has dramatically dropped over the last two decades and said it was due in part to the lack of debate.

But House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said, "I can't see where the big fuss is."

"Sure, there has to be plenty of debate on an issue," said Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington. "But there also has to be an end to controversy. You have to move along."

However, the Republicans argued that by limiting floor debate, votes in the six standing committees became practically decisive.

Delegate Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, recalled a debate in the House Judiciary Committee over whether the death penalty should be banned for minors, and if so whether the age limit should be 17 and younger, or 15 and younger. By a 12-11 vote, the committee agreed to the 15-and-younger limit.

"If you believed in all your heart and soul that you shouldn't put to death a 16-year-old child, but you followed the committee rule, you could not vote your conscience," he said. In such cases, 12 committee members set policy for the entire House rather than the majority of 71, he said.

Others said that in those instances a legislator simply must possess the courage to buck the committee rule.

"It takes one simple thing: to get up and lead by example," said Delegate Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's. "If you find something so egregious you must stand up, then that is what you must do."

Today in Annapolis

10 a.m. -- Senate convenes, State House.

11:30 a.m. -- House convenes, State House.

Noon -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg are inaugurated for a second four-year term, Senate chamber and West Portico of the State House.

12:40 p.m. -- Governor Schaefer delivers inaugural address, West Portico.

1:15 p.m. -- Public reception, first floor of State House, Old Senate Chamber.

1 p.m. -- House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee receives briefings from Human Relations Commission and considers state procurement issues, Room 140, House Office Building.

There are 82 days remaining in the 1991 General Assembly session.

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