So many bills, so little time Blizzard of bills: Legislators try to avoid getting snowed under as they churn through long days of testimony on dozens of issues while preparing for the final month of the General Assembly session.

March 08, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

In the marble hallways of Annapolis yesterday, the chief executive officers crossed paths with the transsexuals while 16-year-olds slouched and waited to testify against underage drinking.

Inside committee rooms, legislators tried to stay interested in the blizzard of testimony that has become a daily ritual.

Two-thirds of the way through its annual 90-day session, the Maryland General Assembly has turned into a legislative machine, churning through issues and laying the groundwork for a frenetic final month.

Yesterday, on Day 58, nine committees held public hearings on 99 bills -- a legislative smorgasbord covering, among other things, drunken driving, lead paint, copyright royalties and compulsive gambling.

Throughout the afternoon, a small army crisscrossed the House and Senate office buildings, the state in microcosm.

Lobbyists in expensive suits talked on portable phones. William L. Jews, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, greeted legislators while University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner read a newspaper as he waited to make a pitch for renovations at the Lyric Theatre. Before the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, Jessica Xavier outlined her support for a bill to outlaw discrimination against people who, like her, have undergone sex-change operations.

"This is something life has given us," Ms. Xavier told the committee. "We are forced to fashion our lives around this. I plead with you to favorably consider this bill."

After Ms. Xavier's remarks, Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, a Frederick County Republican, had a few questions.

"You were born a male?" the delegate asked.

"I was born with male genitalia," replied Ms. Xavier.

Afterward, she seemed realistic about the bill's chances.

"The committee needed to be educated on this issue," Ms. Xavier said. "We'll be back next year."

Down the hall, the Judiciary Committee heard moving testimony from a teen-age survivor of a highly publicized automobile crash in Montgomery County.

Soon afterward, the panel was confronted by Paul Kuhn, a 30-year-old Rockville man with long dark hair and a black, sleeveless T-shirt displaying the logo of the Doors rock band.

"This bill is so extreme that many teen-agers are going to regard it as nothing less than a declaration of war," Mr. Kuhn said, referring to a measure that would make it easier to suspend a minor's driver's license for drinking. The House Economic Matters Committee took the efficiency prize, dispensing with 17 business-related bills in 2 1/2 hours.

The committee's day got off to a good start when Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, announced that he was withdrawing three of his own bills dealing with gasoline prices after back-room negotiations had produced a compromise among the various interests.

"That ends those three bill hearings," announced Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

The short day for the committee was its first this week. Monday, it began work at 11 a.m. with subcommittee meetings, followed by a five-hour hearing on a staggering 53 local liquor bills.

Tuesday featured 6 1/2 hours on regulating community health networks, and Wednesday covered controversial right-to-work and prevailing-wage proposals.

Mr. Busch, who must rise on the floor of the House of Delegates to defend the committee's work, said his greatest fear was moving too quickly on one of the 300 bills his panel will consider this session.

"You don't want to bring a bad product out on the floor," he said.

Concerned about legislative burnout, several committee chairmen are routinely warning witnesses to keep their testimony short and simple.

"We have 143 people signed up to testify today," announced Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, which heard testimony on 10 bills.

The hearing stretched on for five hours as advocates for lead-paint victims traded testimony with property owners, 24 of whom had chartered a bus from Frederick to make their case.

As the hearing began, 11 of the committee's 22 members were in their seats, while dozens of witnesses waited to testify.

"There will be members in and out today," warned Mr. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat. "It's not that they don't want to be here. They just have to do their job."

That argument wasn't good enough for many witnesses.

Patrick Ulrich, head of a group of Cecil County property owners worried about lead-paint laws, has testified several times in Annapolis, and he was upset after doing it again yesterday.

"They don't listen. They talk among themselves. They're scratching their ear," Mr. Ulrich said. "For these people to treat us this way, I feel like I'm nothing."

Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat, said legislators usually have heard all of the arguments before.

"After the first witness, the testimony is often superfluous," Mr. Poole said. "I feel bad for the public. The issue they're testifying on is the burning issue for them. But the legislature has 2,000 or 3,000 burning issues."

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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