General Assembly shuts down for day

First cancellation in decades, but with little impact on business

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 18, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The carefully constructed timetable of the Maryland General Assembly was disrupted yesterday by a cascade of snow that closed the doors to the House and Senate chambers for the first time in anyone's memory.

Rather than force lawmakers to risk treacherous roads as they returned to Annapolis from all corners of the state, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch canceled the legislative session that was supposed to convene at 8 p.m.

While definitive word was not available yesterday, it appeared to be the first time in at least 40 years that both chambers failed to meet as scheduled.

"I don't recall the session ever being canceled," said Del. John S. Arnick of Dundalk, first elected in 1966. "There's some rumor that it was once, but I just don't recall."

"I can remember once sitting on the House floor and pushing the button `present' until we got to [a quorum of] 71," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "And then we immediately opened the session, and then adjourned right away and went home."

Miller, a careful student of Maryland history, said the Senate had been called off just twice in the past three decades - once during his tenure, and previously when U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer was Senate president, from 1975 to 1979.

But during both of those occasions, Arnick said, "I think the House side stayed."

Reached at home as he shoveled his driveway, state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said he could not immediately say when the last time weather or other events caused the two chambers to remain closed.

Maryland's last big winter storm, in 1996, hit in the days before the Assembly opened for the year and did not cause a delay.

Even though the Assembly operates on a strict 90-day schedule - for example, a budget is supposed to be passed by both chambers on the 83rd day, which is March 31 - yesterday's postponement caused only minor disruption.

Monday is typically a travel day for lawmakers, returning to Annapolis after spending the weekend with their families. Bill hearings aren't usually held Mondays, and most committees don't meet.

"If the snow had occurred on any weekday, we wouldn't have canceled it," Miller said, because legislators would have been in town. "The sessions were designed this way before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built. It's a citizen legislature, and we encourage people to go home as much as possible."

So while some are predicting that a budget battle and disagreement over legalizing slot machines will send the Assembly into overtime, this snow won't be a contributing factor to an extended session.

"If it were a Wednesday or Thursday, it would be a bigger deal," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer, the House Republican leader from Perry Hall, who canceled a GOP caucus scheduled for 8:30 a.m. today. "If it were the middle of March, it would be a bigger deal."

Today, the presiding officers have scheduled the Senate and House to meet two hours later than normal, at noon.

The snowfall delay came as relief to lawmakers with the longest commutes to Annapolis, although they found much to do to fill their day.

Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, lives farther from the capital than any of his colleagues. He cleared his driveway twice Sunday and again yesterday to prepare to come east, he said, removing 49 inches of snow.

Instead of driving, he spent some time in a convenience store he owns and did bookkeeping.

Del. Norman H. Conway of Salisbury doubted he could have made it over the Bay Bridge. Icy roads in Dorchester and Queen Anne's counties were impassable, the Democrat said. So he hunkered down at his dining room table and rolled up his sleeves.

"I'm working on a whole host of things," Conway said. "You name it and I'm working on it."

Miller used the day to replenish his energy. A reporter reached him in the den of his Calvert County home, light years removed from the business of the state.

"I've got a fireplace going, reading a book and watching a Humphrey Bogart movie," he said. "It doesn't get much better than that."

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