Two legislators, too much power

April 01, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

IN LEGISLATIVE buildings south of Annapolis' College Creek, democracy sometimes gives way to a form of bare-knuckles, in-your-face dictatorial power.

The most prominent General Assembly exemplars are two aging legislative warriors, Sen. Walter M. Baker and Del. Joseph F. Vallario. Good bills die because of their high-handed tactics.

This year is no exception. Mr. Vallario has again slammed the door on a meritorious effort to see that jailed citizens have public lawyers for bail hearings. Mr. Baker has tried to do the same thing on much-needed juvenile-services reforms and a temporary suspension of the death penalty.

It's not the opposition of these powerful committees that raises concerns; it's the arbitrary methods they employ.

They sabotage bills by stopping the legislature's democratic process in its tracks.

Mr. Baker sticks bills he detests in his famed "bottom desk drawer." Mr. Vallario simply ignores bills he finds anathema: They never come up for a vote.

So much for the citizens' elected representatives voting on what the law should be. These two men short-circuit that system and give themselves the power.

Forget about the other 186 lawmakers in the General Assembly. They don't count. When Messrs. Baker and Vallario feel like it, they are the General Assembly.

This has advocacy groups frustrated, with nowhere to turn. Legislative leaders rarely overrule committee chairmen because that would weaken a chain of command that has evolved over decades.

Senate President Mike Miller leaned on Mr. Baker to free the death-penalty measure for a floor vote, just as he and the governor worked overtime last year persuading Mr. Baker to ease his grip on a gun-control measure. That's the exception, not the rule.

On juvenile-detention reforms, Mr. Baker is also doing the dirty work for cabinet secretary Bishop L. Robinson, who privately wants these bills killed.

Attempts to reason with the Cecil County senator, who's been in the legislature 27 years and has run his committee 15 years, have gotten nowhere. If he doesn't like a bill and knows a majority of his panel does, he just refuses to bring the matter to a vote.

"I save them from themselves," is how he put it.

Some senators are fed up with this hijacking of democracy, but won't take on their chairman. Retribution on their bills would be swift and lethal.

Over in the House, the situation is no better. The bill to give arrested citizens a public defender at bail reviews has failed three years running. Mr. Vallario, who's been a delegate 27 years and chairman nine years, opposes any bill that would deprive bail bondsmen or defense lawyers like himself of potential business.

Under this bill, poor defendants jailed on minor offenses would no longer languish there -- at taxpayer expense -- for an average of 30 days. The prison system could save millions, District Court docket-overload would ease and defendants would get a fair shot at being released pending trial.

The chief judge of the District Court testified favorably. So did the attorney general. It didn't move Mr. Vallario. "One individual has taken it upon himself to decide what's best for the state," muttered an angry advocate.

"It's just wrong," said another backer. "If the bill gets voted down, OK, but this is anti-democratic."

While they won't say so publicly, the General Assembly's presiding officers like having a few dictatorial chairmen. All of them occasionally delay a repugnant bill, or postpone a vote until it's impossible to rush the measure through to passage.

But it helps if one or two are willing to act as bad guys, to sit on measures the presiding officer doesn't want to oppose publicly. It also helps to have a few chairmen determined to bury ill-conceived do-gooder bills and "snakes" that slither into the hopper.

Such power ought to be exercised judiciously. It doesn't work that way with Messrs. Baker and Vallario, though.

They've gotten too entrenched, too arrogant, too comfortable applying the crushing blow. As a result, bills that could help troubled youth and the defenseless will die this session. And democracy will die a little, too.

* * *

Last Sunday's column incorrectly stated that the recommended 2001 rate increase for hospitals was a "niggardly" 0.5 percent. In fact, the proposal calls for a 0.5 percent increase on top of an inflation factor of 2.36 percent.

That's far less than what hospitals say they need. Indeed, one health insurer estimates its 2001 medical costs will rise 7 percent to 12 percent. If that happens, even a 2.86 percent rate increase will look "niggardly."

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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