Political trivial pursuit

April 14, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

LADIES and gentlemen of the General Assembly, start your campaigns. And in case all of you incumbents don't get it, the just completed session is a casebook example of why it's better to be running on the outside than playing on the inside.

This is the year of the massive turnover, and incumbents are becoming more endangered than the spotted owl. The rap sheet brackets both sides of the assembly's record -- what they did do and what they didn't.

At one extreme the legislature repealed the income surtax on the very rich. At the other, lawmakers quietly fattened their own salaries, perks and pensions. They also found one more way to finance re-election campaigns by legalizing credit card contributions. And scrunched in between, the dance of legislation involved a list of symbolic issues that were more sleight-of-hand than substantive.

For the most part, the legislature was whipsawed on critical issues by fat-cat lobbyists and special interest groups. There are now 510 registered lobbyists in Annapolis representing 1,200 clients. Last year, lobbyists reported earning and spending about $13.8 million, with $10.4 million of that in compensation alone. Of the lobbyists, 24 reported earning $100,000 or more for elbow-grabbing.

In many cases, the assembly seemed paralyzed by election-year politics and by its inability to put the public interest ahead of its own. If self-preservation is the first law of politics, nowhere was it more evident than in the State House this year.

Take, for example, the so-called "Annie bill" that will require alcohol tests in auto accidents involving deaths and life-threatening injuries. The bill was dead until high-minded teen-agers went to the State House and cried over the auto death of their friend, Annie. Assembly members were out-legislated by a bunch of kids, and now they'll be out claiming credit for the bill's passage.

And there was, too, the convoluted crossfire that was necessary to ban the purchase of 18 semiautomatic handguns, known as assault pistols, whose only purpose is to kill humans. Only after extraordinary end-running of the legislative process was the assembly narrowly able to institute the ban.

The legislature was also turned on its head by the tobacco industry. The 25-cent cigarette tax increase that was introduced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as a so-called health-care issue was put through the dissembling grinder and emerged as an "election-year tax increase." That, of course, was enough to kill it. As Otto von Bismarck observed, two things never to watch being made are sausage and laws.

The medical lobby also commanded much of the legislature's attention, as it usually does because of its high visibility and its big-bucks political action committees. The docs put on a full-court press to allow members of HMOs to choose their own doctors. That, of course, would have defeated the purpose of HMOs and managed health care. (The bill died on the assembly's last day.)

And it wasn't until the 46-member women's caucus rebelled and rallied that the General Assembly enacted legislation to give greater protection and legal standing to victims of domestic violence.

The symbols of the session were those measures that do little to alter the course of democracy or heighten the quality of life in Maryland but look and sound good in an election year. They also please interest groups.

There was the victims' rights constitutional amendment that does nothing more than ratify laws that already exist. There was a swatch of anti-crime bills and the pick-your-execution law that permits death by lethal injection as a humane alternative to the gas chamber.

The so-call "English language" bill, which was enacted, kicked up a fuss, as did the "Hon" and "Bro" amendments to the budget, which were quietly discarded. The so-called "keg bill" will require liquor stores to register everyone who buys beer by the barrel, and the "Elks bill," which failed, would have empowered local governments to withhold liquor licenses from private clubs that discriminate. And, of course, there was the perennial mesmerizer, enshrining the square dance as Maryland's official folk dance.

Legislators seem to be less and less in charge and are more and more reliant on the army of lobbyists who storm the State House each year, as well as on their youngish and inexperienced staff and committee employees.

Legislators are isolated, they're insulated, they've been around too long, and too few really make a difference. The entire legislative process has been trivialized.

Maryland has come late to the term-limitations frenzy. And this General Assembly is proof that a law limiting terms is unnecessary. The antic behavior on display over the past four years ought to be cause for ejection from office as well as the sanitizing of the system.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills about Maryland politics.

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