Bills' odds change with leaders

Transition: With a more liberal chairman leading the Judicial Procedures Committee, analysts say, broader legislation is being heard on the floor of the state Senate.

April 06, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate, over the past three months, debated a death penalty moratorium, whether to make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a death sentence, whether to ease the penalties for seriously ill patients who smoke marijuana and call it medicine, whether to let automated cameras catch speeders when police may be miles away.

"None of this stuff would have had a chance in the last four years," says Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican and one of the most conservative voices in the General Assembly.

But that was before Brian E. Frosh took over as the new chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, bringing to that vital committee what is arguably the most liberal voice on President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.'s new leadership team.

People who say that state politics isn't about ideology would be stunned by the difference made by the defeat in last year's election of the former committee chairman, Walter M. Baker.

Baker, a seemingly entrenched, septuagenarian Democrat from Cecil County, held a firm grip on the legislation that left his committee. And if, somehow, something slipped through and landed on the Senate floor, he made his displeasure known. When a death penalty moratorium bill made it through two years ago, Baker led the filibuster against it on the Senate floor.

"To think a death penalty moratorium bill would be out here defended by the chairman - no one would ever think that," marvels Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, recalling the world that existed under Baker.

As this year's legislative session comes to a close, so, too, does the first session in leadership for the new chairmen of the Senate's four committees. Last fall was particularly harsh for committee chairmen as two were lost to retirement and two to election defeat, depriving the Senate - for better or worse - of their vast experience and institutional knowledge.

Frosh and Baker weren't the only jarring transition in committee leadership.

The mild-mannered, reflective Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, was given the Budget and Taxation Committee after the commanding Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore lost her re-election bid. Unlike Hoffman, Currie often appears more willing to defer to staff and to delegate to his colleagues.

The Finance Committee is no longer the playground for special interests it once was. Baltimore County's Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who left for a high-paying state job, frequently would let lobbyists participate in committee deliberations. The new chairman, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, has an aw-shucks exterior and runs the committee in a more traditional way.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, and her predecessor as head of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Clarence W. Blount, are said to be the most alike. Hollinger, a veteran of more than 20 years in the General Assembly, was awarded the committee she helped run as the elderly Blount's vice chairman.

The shift in leadership opens a window into how much committee chairmen can shape the Senate's agenda. The change doesn't necessarily mean a major shift in what the full Senate will pass - both the death penalty moratorium and the bill to make it tougher to get a death sentence were extensively deliberated but ultimately defeated. Yet the committee's choices sparked debates that in years past had been stifled.

Nowhere has the philosophical shift been more dramatic than in Judicial Proceedings. And it starts with the personality of the chairman Frosh, a 56-year-old attorney with a sharp legal mind and a quick wit.

Baker, the former chairman, was known to start committee discussions by making it clear which bills he didn't like.

"`We've lived 269 years without it and we don't need it this year,'" Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a member of the legislature from Montgomery County for 25 years, recalls Baker would say.

"And there was dead silence," she said. Dead bill, too.

Under Frosh, "the discussion is so much broader, and people feel at ease," she says.

What is evident on the Senate floor is the switch in thinking in the committee room. Without the conservative Baker - and with four new members - votes that once went 6-5 in favor of a more conservative agenda often go 6-5 toward a more liberal one.

"The whole character of the Senate is changed by committee chairmen," says Jimeno, a conservative-leaning Anne Arundel County Democrat who more often has found himself on the losing side of votes under Frosh. "I don't think the members really understand the power of the chairmen and the twists and the spin they can put on legislation. And once you get past this body [the full Senate], chances are it'll pass in the House."

In Maryland, unlike many other states, every bill that is introduced in a timely fashion gets a public hearing before a committee. But the chairman then gets to decide which bills come up for a committee vote.

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