Tough issues usually take long path to law books

Slots, stem cell research elude a quick consensus

General Assembly

April 10, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Breaking a long silence on one of the most divisive issues in Annapolis this year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he backs the concept of stem-cell research, including experiments using human embryos.

But lawmakers said the governor's statement so late in the legislative session would not be enough to secure passage of a stalled bill that would commit state dollars to such research.

As the session draws to a close at midnight tomorrow, it appears that embryonic stem cell research will join slot machine gambling and other high-profile bills that will die for lack of a compromise - a common fate for groundbreaking or contentious initiatives in their early stages.

"I support stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research," Ehrlich said during his regular appearance on WBAL radio's State Line with the Governor program. Ehrlich did not elaborate, or address the legislation that would commit tax dollars to the idea.

Key senators said the declaration would not prevent a filibuster expected in the Senate tomorrow, which would kill the bill.

"It doesn't change anything," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican who voted in committee to support the legislation but says he won't be one of the 29 votes needed to end debate on the Senate floor. "I support allowing the minority to filibuster. It's the only power they have."

Defeat of the legislation would reinforce a dynamic that applies in Annapolis and most other state capitals: Big ideas take time to become law. Legislative base hits are cheap and easy. Home runs are another story.

"It's not that every big idea takes several years. It's just that most do," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "No. 1, it takes people a while to become accustomed to it. No. 2, it sometimes takes the legislature several tries to get the ... language right."

Ehrlich has learned the lesson the hard way. Defeated twice already, his slot machine proposal is expected to die a third time tomorrow at midnight, when the session ends.

The governor declared it dead yesterday on the radio show and said Democrats refuse to allow a referendum on the issue in 2006 because they don't want slots on the ballot when Ehrlich is running for re-election.

To be sure, one-year wonders are not unheard of. Usually they are driven by the strength of a chief executive, a crisis, or election year politics, State House veterans say.

The $1.3 billion Thornton education plan to fund local schools was approved in 2002, months before lawmakers were going to campaign as champions of education. The Assembly passed the initiative without identifying a way to pay for it, and has struggled to do so ever since.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening pushed through his landmark Smart Growth package to combat suburban sprawl in a matter of weeks.

But those are exceptions. Most ideas need time to percolate.

Vincent DeMarco knows better than most how much work goes into getting lawmakers to accept a bold new concept. Over more than a decade, he has toiled with enviable success to limit handgun sales, ban assault weapons, raise the cigarette tax and - in an effort that culminated in favorable Assembly votes this year - tax big businesses that don't provide a prescribed level of health care, namely Wal-Mart.

"The legislature has to understand it, and it takes a while," said DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizen's Health Care Initiative, referring to such complex issues. "Secondly, there has to be a grassroots movement to make it happen. You have to show grassroots support."

On the radio yesterday, Ehrlich gave his firmest indication to date that he would veto the large-business health care tax, which he says hurts the state's reputation with businesses nationally.

"I just wish I had more votes here to stomp it down," Ehrlich said. "This will pass. My veto will be overridden."

If so, it will mean a victory for a coalition that spent years laying a foundation, a strategy DeMarco has perfected. He builds coalitions and gets those partners to lobby lawmakers after the groups have reached critical mass.

The process can take years. When a tobacco tax increase failed in 1997, for example, DeMarco retreated to the streets. "We spent time ignoring the legislature and talking to the people," he said. The tax passed in 1999.

Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Assembly operations illustrate the classic political science concept of incrementalism.

"The changes occur on the margins, and incrementally and slowly," said Norris.

Even the concepts that are considered big ideas in Annapolis aren't necessarily groundbreaking, Norris said.

In Norris' view, Glendening's Smart Growth proposal, for example, "had a really big label, but it did very little," he said. "Stem-cell research doesn't affect many people; it's not a big idea. It is smack dab in the middle of a huge ideological divide."

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