The clock ticks down and fatigue sets in

General Assembly

April 11, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Exhaustion could be measured in myriad ways in Annapolis during the last of the General Assembly's 90-day session.

Del. Anthony G. Brown's BlackBerry posted an outgoing message to those who send him e-mails starting today: "Family vacation (not Maryland)."

Lobbyist Gary Alexander, former speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, lifted a tired foot off the ground yesterday to show the sole of a worn dress shoe. The lobbyist with an office on State Circle said he's gone through three pairs since January. "Three pair!" he said with a shake of the head.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's sunny orange tie was not a reflection of his disposition. From the dais, Miller, usually a font of funnies who is quick with a wink and a big laugh, barked for the session calendar and steered a volatile discussion about the fate of Baltimore schools. Behind closed doors, the weary lawmaker wrangled with the governor and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to craft a plan to avoid a potentially disastrous increase in utility costs.

Only Max, the bomb-sniffing black Labrador who made his session debut last week when a caller to the Baltimore police threatened to blow up the State House, seemed cheerful yesterday, wagging his tail. State House humans, on the other hand, oozed fatigue.

"Seven hours and fifty-four minutes to go," Rhoades Whitehill, the House reading clerk - who downed a triple espresso to start the day, and another to toast the afternoon session - said midway through the afternoon.

Ah, the final hoorah in Annapolis. Sometimes productive. Often anticlimactic. But over, over, over, at least for now.

Yesterday - though surprisingly quiet in State House hallways - produced a flurry of back-room discussion. The beast beneath the surface was the conversation over electric utility rates, an effort to produce a last-minute compromise plan to avoid a 72 percent increase.

But lawmakers tackled a range of other issues, from the seemingly obscure (deer hunting on private land on Sundays) to the seriously controversial (the proposed state takeover of 11 Baltimore City schools, which was rejected with an override of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto). In between they grabbed late lunches - extra ham and cheese for Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus - and fantasized about vacation plans. Some even hit the parties being hosted around town by lobbyists and law firms, such as Alexander's.

The day began with a 7:30 a.m. meeting between Miller, Busch, Ehrlich and officials from BGE and Constellation Energy. A deal seemed in the works.

Outside the State House, however, one young man stood with a sign that said: "No Deals for Constellation. Extend Caps."

Members were briefed throughout the day in closed caucuses about the pending rates plan, with a crash course in how a modified rate increase would be implemented.

"In the next 11 hours or so there's going to be an intensive education effort," said Brown, who is the House majority whip and is responsible for helping his party's leaders count votes.

While members were enlightened - and lobbied, no doubt, for their votes - others found time to enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn on the front porch of Alexander's law firm. Under a clear blue sky, they were treated to beverages and song. Though the end of the annual legislative session loomed, a melancholy James Taylor tune crooned by a young guy in sunglasses seemed somehow fitting with the rates issue still undecided:

"With 10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go."

At 6 p.m., Del. Dereck Davis, the Prince George's County Democrat who has been at the center of the rates debate, looked like he had 10,000 miles to go. With a notebook tucked under his arm and a long face, he descended the marble staircase from the governor's offices on the second floor where he'd been holed up in discussions.

Calling this session "the most grueling" he's faced, Davis predicted the negotiations would go down to the wire - the midnight deadline, when the session ends.

"Like everyone else, a certain level of fatigue has set in," he said. "But I signed up for it. So I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me."

A half-hour later, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, whispered the two words most dreaded by lawmakers as they trudge through the waning hours of the session's last day, or Sine Die as it's known: special session.

Frosh, who has a trip planned to Russia next weekend, said he has no love lost for Sine Die.

"It's the ultimate in legislative fear and loathing," he said.

Meanwhile, the most essential of things appeared to unravel in the House as the buttons lawmakers push to register their votes on an electronic tote board stopped working. Busch halted official business until the problem was corrected.

It took the national champion Maryland Terrapins women's basketball team to bring relief and celebration - complete with hoots and hollers and thundering applause - to both chambers. Miller planted a kiss on Coach Brenda Frese's cheek and cheered for future success.

"We have a dynasty!" he said. "It's a very young team."

As the clock ticked into the late evening hours, however, it seemed grim news was imminent. Rumors that a deal had been reached on utility rates were overtaken with talk of a deadlock.

Still, Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican, bet two reporters a beer apiece that a deal would be reached by midnight. If he lost the bet, he said, he was prepared to buy his own.

"Either way, I get two beers," he said as he headed upstairs for the final stretch.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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