Stem cells, budget and slots still in store for Assembly

After a heated start, no sign of cooling off

General Assembly

February 06, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

First came Wal-Mart, a clash over corporate health benefits that drew the nation's gaze to Annapolis.

Legislators then, with their bags scarcely unpacked, took up undoing one Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. veto after another. Democrats, it seemed, scarcely let up on the green vote button, overriding and overriding until they had reversed more executive vetoes than any General Assembly in memory.

And the party was just getting started.

Senators filibustered on the floor and threatened more. Purple fingers stained a voter intimidation bill. An inside-out budget situation featured Democrats accusing a Republican governor of spending "like a drunken sailor."

Hearings on the administration's firing practices were tense and the reawakening of a passionate debate over stem cell research even more so.

And more emotional fireworks closed out last week, as the House quashed - at least for now - a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Can anyone believe the 90-day session is less than a month old?

"It's like we just jumped in and every day feels like sine die," said Del. Eric M. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, referring to the typically harried finale of the assembly's annual gathering (which this year falls on April 10).

"More of the same" is what he predicts for the session's remainder.

Delegates and senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, say they feel flattened, punched down and deflated by emotional issues and fierce politicking. In this peculiar year - with primary elections a little more than seven months away - the rough stuff came prematurely, in the usually sedate opening days.

"I relate it to music," says Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford County Republican. "It starts pianissimo and then it crescendos. But that has not happened this year, and it really has been rather intense."

Taking up overrides on Day 2 set a partisan tone, Parrott says - one that's been sustained for weeks as the Democratic leadership has unrolled, in drips and drabs, a series of Ehrlich's vetoed bills.

"We've still got eight to consider that have been on hold for almost two weeks," she said.

Overrides may have stymied Republicans, but the assembly's minority responded in kind with their own maneuver: filibusters.

Hardly more than an hour into the first roll-up-the-sleeves day of the session, Republican senators expended seemingly endless oratory - and more than a little purple ink - to debate the dickens out of what was, until then, a relatively unassuming bill called the Voter Rights Protection Act of 2005.

With that filibuster under their belt, Republican senators have promised a bigger, more-show-stopping sequel once stem cell research funding comes to the floor.

"Everything, it being an election year, has become a political purpose," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Democrat from Montgomery County. "I feel like I've been here two months."

Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, is hardly the only legislator already wishing for a vacation. Just the other night, he and his wife were talking about where they could go for a relaxing weekend.

"Just so we can get away from here," he said. "It's proven to be very taxing already."

And there's more to come.

The Senate will wrangle with the governor's robust budget. Stem cell research looms. There's surefire controversy in a bill that would allow women to get emergency contraception without a prescription. The old slots issue? That, too, lurks on the back burner.

"I'm hopeful the temperature will cool down a great deal," Giannetti said. "I can see tempers flying, and I think we should all take a step back and try to find common ground."

That, he admits, is not likely. Stormy and antagonistic is his forecast for the next two months.

"People are very cognizant of the fact that we have potential for great conflict and friction," agrees J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican senator from the Eastern Shore. Everyone, he adds, is straining for civility.

And that's mainly because the stakes this year are huge, he said. With a gubernatorial election just months away, the conflict can only grow.

"I feel an undercurrent boiling underneath the intensity," Stoltzfus said. "It's a strange year."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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