Annual inundation of bills at deadline

Legislation: Writers, print shop employees, typists and proofreaders are working long hours in Annapolis readying bills for the General Assembly.

February 11, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

It's deadline week in the General Assembly, and the proofreaders are working as fast as they can.

Hundreds of bills are moving through the Senate and House of Delegates. The print shop rarely takes a break. The computer operators who type corrections are spending long hours in Dilbert-like cubicles.

This is the last week lawmakers can introduce legislation without getting the permission of the Rules Committee. The bill drafters, whose work starts the production process, have been staying late and working weekends, trying to push through the flood of requests from many of Maryland's 188 legislators.

Yesterday, anxious delegates stopped by the bill drafting room to check on last-minute changes. Hundreds of House bills are expected today, and they had to be in the chief clerk's hands by 5 p.m. On Monday, the Senate's deadline, 182 bills were introduced.

During yesterday's morning session, delegates scurried around the House chamber seeking co-sponsors and signatures while the secretary read 125 new bills into the record. Across State Circle, the proofreaders worked their way through stacks of legislation yet to be introduced. On a good day, they will proofread 100 bills.

"It gets more and more rushed as we go along," says Barbara Arthur, document management coordinator of the proofreading room. "This is cutoff time."

The proofreaders, who start at $10.70 an hour, keep away from State House politics. Legislators aren't allowed in the room. Any questions must go through the bill drafters. For the proofreaders, confidentiality is essential.

"This is a political world we live in, and our role is to be neutral," says Arthur, a former school teacher. "We never want to be perceived as benefiting one side over another."

But there are always little requests and intrusions, she says, "people calling and saying, `Take this out of the pile and put it on top.' "

Here and there are bills tagged with green slips of paper. "That must get out soon," Arthur says. "Not today. Soon. Soonest. Those are the ones that someone is jumping up and down about."

Arthur graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in biology and used to teach in Anne Arundel County public schools. Several years ago she answered an ad for proofreaders. Now, she finds herself proofreading cereal boxes and toothpaste tubes.

"It's a curse," she says.

All around her, a constant murmur of voices fills the large, open room. Fourteen pairs of readers sit in cubicles, reading to each other, poring over the bills, checking for language, cross-checking for agreement with the Annotated Code. Sometimes they'll call the bill drafter and suggest a change.

"We suggest diplomatically," says Betty Francis, a proofreader. "The whole thing is to be diplomatic when we're talking to our lawyers. They have gentle feelings."

The Department of Legislative Services has 15 lawyers whose principal job is drafting bills, and another 25 help out. Last year, 1,219 bills were introduced in the House of Delegates and 795 in the Senate.

Every piece of legislation -- from the mundane and simple to the complex and controversial, from 100-page budget bills to the one-pager that wants to make children wear helmets when rollerblading -- comes through the bill drafters.

"They come in all shapes and sizes, from the proverbial request on the back of a cocktail napkin to the well-thought-out proposal," says Michael I. Volk, coordinator in the Office of Policy Analysis.

Some bills take no time at all to draft. Others can take weeks, maybe months of working with a legislative task force. Often the drafters end up with a specialty.

Shirleen M. Pilgrim, a 1994 University of Maryland Law School graduate in her first legislative session, is handling criminal law and transportation issues. Heidi E. Dudderar, another first-year drafter, is handling bond bills. So far she has written 380 of them.

"I'm all about the creation of state debt," she says.

Like the proofreaders, the bill drafters are apolitical and strictly behind the scenes. They work in an agenda-free zone, and they like it that way. Let the legislators get the headlines.

"We don't produce legislative ideas at all. The ideas come from them," says Dudderar. "We're here as attorneys to talk about the legal efficacy of bills and the stylistic concerns, how it sounds. We stay away from politics."

This is not a job people grow up dreaming about. Dudderar answered an advertisement in the Daily Record. Pilgrim, who had done some federal lobbying, heard about the work from a neighbor. The starting salary is $36,000. The work gets easier, but it is never a task to take lightly.

"You may be able to do it quickly, fairly quickly, but not to the point where it is by rote," says Volk, who came to the State House as a bill drafter in 1971. "Even the most experienced people, myself included, make mistakes."

For the bill drafters, the legislative deadline marks the end of a weeks-long rush. Two floors below them, the rush continues. Inside the print shop there's a constant clatter of printing and collating machines. The room smells of ink and lubricating oil.

Daniel Saxon, copy center supervisor, says the shop prints 1,300 copies of each bill. By the time the session ends on April 10, the staff will have gone through 7.1 million sheets of bill-sized paper. As Saxon looks around the room, a colleague pulls a skid stacked high with 150,000 prepackaged sheets.

"On a day like this, we'll probably go through three or four of them," he says.

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