A lesser session

April 13, 2005

BY TRADITION, the leaders of state government gather on the morning after a legislative session to sign bills and brag. Yesterday, when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sat down with commemorative pens in hand, they were asked if they had anything to say. Not one of them did. It was a perfect metaphor for the previous 90 days in Annapolis: Not much worth claiming and no talking to each other.

Here are the highlights (if that's not too strong a term) of the past 90 days:

Increased aid to public education (as required by the Thornton spending plan), to public school construction and to higher education; stiffer requirements for teen drivers; slightly stricter standards to reduce lead poisoning; a new law (of limited scope) to combat witness intimidation; a $1 higher minimum wage; a constitutional amendment placing limits on the sale of state land; a law giving same-sex couples the right to make medical decisions for each other; and, of course, the unmourned deaths of the various slots bills.

What the session failed to accomplish would take a far longer list and would include: The failure to address the state's long-term structural deficit. Ditto for the environment and the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay. The folks in Annapolis still aren't doing much about the economy (sorry, tax credits for biotechnology and for film production aren't going to result in full employment anytime soon). Even a very modest effort to support embryonic stem cell research, an issue with broad support among Maryland voters, failed on the final day because Mr. Miller didn't want to risk a filibuster in the Senate. Mr. Ehrlich may say he supported the bill (on Day 88) but he surely didn't do much to get it passed. But then, why should the governor treat this bill differently from his own?

Republicans acknowledge the failure but wrongly assign the blame to "divided government" and "obstructionists." Yes, partisanship plays its part. But even Spiro T. Agnew, Maryland's last Republican governor, didn't experience this kind of paralysis. Despite serving only two years in office, Mr. Agnew reformed the state's income tax system, passed an open housing law, purchased Friendship Airport and rewrote the state's constitution. How did he do it? Historians say he worked with Democratic leaders. The frustrating fact is that Mr. Ehrlich knows how to do this - as he demonstrated last year with his "flush tax" proposal - but chooses not to on too many issues. This year, his agenda was modest by any modern standard. Predictably, so were his results.

But let's not leave Democrats off the hook. It's not like Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch are talking to each other either. Mr. Miller's last-minute attempt to move next year's primary election to May purely to aid his party's gubernatorial nominee was a classic example of overreaching. It only fuels Mr. Ehrlich's claims that the Democrats have been in power in Annapolis too long. And it doesn't help that lawmakers can't pass meaningful campaign finance reform - even in the face of abuses such as the use of limited liability partnerships and companies to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to candidates.

From the political posturing of the medical malpractice special session to the embarrassing Joseph F. Steffen Jr. scandal (not to mention a looming investigation into the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices), it's been an annus horribilis in the State House.

Maybe the best thing of the 2005 legislative session is that it's over.

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