Session enters its final hours

`Controlled frenzy' likely as Md. lawmakers thrash out unresolved issues

`A lot of mischief can be done'

General Assembly

April 12, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF WRITER

Tonight at midnight, or shortly before, the majority leaders of the Maryland House and Senate will rise and speak what many in Annapolis consider the sweetest words in Latin.

Sine die.

Literal translation: "without [a] day." Practical translation: Thank heaven it's over.

After 90 days, the General Assembly will no longer be in session. The 188 members of Maryland's part-time legislature can go home and return to being doctors, lawyers, farmers or whatever they do in the nine months before the annual roller-coaster ride starts again.

But before Del. Kumar P. Barve and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden can make their motions to adjourn their respective chambers sine die, lawmakers face about 14 frantic hours of wrestling with issues they couldn't resolve during the first 89 days of the session.

It's a day when lawmakers find out whether months of work for their most treasured causes will be for naught. The success of a lobbyist's year might hinge on inserting a few words into a 70-page bill with hours to spare.

John Stierhoff, a veteran lobbyist and former legislative staffer, says the last day of the session is always one of "controlled frenzy" - one in which deadly lulls are punctuated by bursts of frantic activity.

"It's like the whole legislative session in one day," Stierhoff said. "It's a day when a lot of work can be done, a lot of mischief can be done, if you're not paying attention, and this is true for legislators and lobbyists alike."

This year, the pressure will be especially intense because Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller delayed the naming of conference committees in an ultimately futile effort to force House Speaker Michael E. Busch to pass a bill legalizing slot machines. When Miller folded his hand, he was not so much surrendering to Busch as bowing to the near-universal desire to get out of Annapolis.

Before they can go, however, they must deal with a host of issues that remain unresolved - many of them delayed while the presiding officers locked horns. Hovering over every unresolved issue will be the clocks in the Senate and House chambers. When they strike midnight, every bill not passed becomes so much worthless paper.

Can't stop the clock

There was a time when powerful presiding officers would stop the clock at 11:59 p.m. and keep legislating, but the Court of Appeals declared that illegal decades ago.

Last-minute mischief in Annapolis often comes in the form of "snakes" - innocuous-seeming amendments slipped into bills through the connivance of lobbyists and friendly lawmakers.

Albert "Buz" Winchester, former lobbyist for the Maryland State Bar Association and self-described "legislative herpetologist," said it is impossible to track all the snakes that slither into legislation during the rush of the final day.

"You can't see 'em all. They sneak in," Winchester said. "You wake up two days later and say, `My goodness, how did that get in there?'"

Winchester recalls one session in which his No. 1 priority for the year passed the Senate with 30 seconds to spare.

Busch had the opposite experience in 1997, when he was chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. All session long, he had worked on a major bill to set up a system of appeals and grievances for HMO customers. It involved tortuous negotiations with the industry and the Senate. Not until late at night did the conference committee agree on a final bill.

With the minutes ticking away, Busch had to push the conference committee report through the print shop and to the podiums of the two chambers for approval. He had it approved by the House and carried it to the Senate with, he thought, five minutes to spare.

Just as he got to Miller's desk, however, then-Majority Leader Clarence M. Blount stood up and moved in his mellifluous baritone for the Senate of Maryland to adjourn sine die. Months of work went down the drain.

"It was still five minutes to 12," Busch recalled. "There's a reason for everything. It actually came back and became a better bill the next year."

Powers magnified

As the hours slip away, the power of the governor, speaker and Senate president are magnified. Critical final issues are negotiated among the three of them.

Last year, it took a last-hour meeting in Miller's office for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to help work out a bitter Senate-House dispute that threatened to leave the state without a capital budget.

In the final hours, Miller and Busch will be able to use one of the most potent weapons at their disposal: the power to set priorities. Bills they like can go to the top of the pile; those they dislike can go to the bottom.

While much critical work is done the final day, the State House also turns into a social scene. The hallway between the chambers is packed, as former legislators, political junkies and assorted hangers-on join the usual throng of lobbyists, reporters and state officials.

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