Fresh lawmakers wait out the `quiet before the storm'

Assembly's workload lags as host of rookies adjusts

January 24, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

It's as if Annapolis is operating like one of those old Victrola music boxes that take awhile to crank and get going.

The number of bills filed is half of what it was this time last year. Some freshman delegates are still awaiting equipment for their staffs. Brass nameplates have yet to arrive for some offices, so name tags printed on paper continue to hang in their stead. And hearings are being postponed because agency leaders have been slow to be named.

More than two weeks into the General Assembly session, the business of the state appears stuck on the first few bars of the 90-day sonata.

It happens every four years after an election, but this time around seems worse because of a large class of freshman lawmakers, significant changes in legislative leadership, and the first Republican governor elected in 36 years.

"It's much slower than usual," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "We have 41 new delegates, 12 new senators. We were assigning them to committees and offices and getting them stationery.

"With this new Republican administration, it just compounds things," Miller said.

`Sea of change'

In addition to the governor, the General Assembly experienced its second highest turnover since 1986, with a third of the lawmakers reporting to Annapolis for the first time this month. All the committee leaders in the Senate are new, as are the House speaker, the speaker pro tem and two House committee leaders.

"It's just a sea of change, so everybody's trying to find their equilibrium," said Karl Aro, director of legislative services. "My guess is we're going to have a lighter year, but not all that much lighter."

With all the new faces in and around the State House, supply staffs are working at a feverish pitch, replacing computers and fax machines, printing business cards and stationery, delivering office supplies and furniture.

"A lot of the new members didn't place their orders until the first week of session," said Christine Workmeister, office manager for the Legislative Services Office of Information Systems. "And you're dealing with former members who are still bitter about losing the election and don't want to turn in their equipment."

So their successors end up waiting for equipment -- usually a computer of some kind -- to come back so Workmeister's staff can clean it and deliver it to the new lawmakers' offices.

Most of the new legislators have their basic equipment, but Workmeister said a handful are still waiting for computers this week and many need fax machines and fax telephone lines.

Without the fax lines, the lawmakers can't even put in their work orders for business cards and stationery, creating another clog in the system.

That is part of the problem for Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who is in his first year in the House of Delegates. After two weeks in Annapolis, his aide is waiting for a computer to get work done. Ramirez handed out business cards from his law firm because his state legislator cards had not arrived.

"I've been sharing my laptop with my aide," Ramirez said. "It does make constituent service a little more difficult. It's a slow process, but everything's picking up."

Well, almost everything.

Bill filing remains particularly slow and is expected to fall short of last year's total of 2,428 bills.

Frank Dobson, 60, a bill service adviser, spent part of his afternoon one day this week finishing a newspaper crossword puzzle, waiting in the Legislative Services Building bill room for lawmakers to send his office more legislation to process.

"We really don't have much going on," Dobson said. "I don't know why the bills haven't come up."

Barbara C. Brandford, 46, a customer service supervisor in legislative services, is busy enough. She is processing dozens of requests for business cards and stationery at a frantic pace, trying to clean up a backlog that resulted from the new class of lawmakers.

But just like with Dobson, Brandford isn't tied up with orders for bills. "We're not having any problems with the bills because we don't have any," she said.

With the bills only trickling in, some veteran lawmakers expect a crush of legislation in the next few days as everyone rushes to meet filing deadlines.

"It's always quiet before the storm," said Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat beginning his fifth term. "This is a natural course of events with a freshman class."

But it is not just the new legislators who are affecting the pace of the session. The transition of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration also continues to hold up business.

Cancellations

Yesterday, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, gave her committee the day off after three of the administration's departments canceled the briefings they scheduled with her.

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