Session full of surprises comes to a furious

public Editor

Public Editor

April 16, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

The Sun's detailed reporting about the final day (and long night) of this year's Maryland General Assembly was a fitting culmination to a 90-day session that was arduous and extremely partisan.

Because senators, delegates and members of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration were working with an eye toward the November elections, if often seemed as if legislation was less based on public interest than how it would play in the upcoming campaigns.

As Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka said after the session ended, "Selflessness was unexpected and compromise a long shot." Skalka, who has covered legislative sessions in other states as well as a presidential primary and a congressional race, added, "This session produced the most contentious, partisan politics I've ever witnessed."

One of Skalka's articles last week reported that, not surprisingly, Ehrlich also believed the session was very partisan. The governor was quoted as saying, "We need to have an election in Maryland."

The workload for legislators, the administration and journalists was heavy. Phrases such as "weary lawmakers, "oozed fatigue," "the most grueling" and "the ultimate in legislative fear and loathing" gave readers a real sense of what the final day of this demanding session was really like.

Many Sun readers were greeted Tuesday morning with the banner headline "RATE DEAL DIES," which reported that lawmakers failed to reach a last-minute compromise to avert a 72 percent increase for BGE customers. The newspaper reported Wednesday that Ehrlich and legislators were still committed to BGE rate relief, with or without a special legislative session.

So what began in January with legislation effectively forcing Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits ended with a bill that delays the planned state takeover of 11 Baltimore city schools and no agreement to reduce the BGE rate increases.

Based on reactions from readers during the past month, interest in the General Assembly was extremely high, partly because of those two stories.

Reader Charles Herr said: "It is quite revealing to read the various Sun articles describing the last day of the session, which saw no agreement on the BGE rate increase plans. ... We also read that it is customary to wait until the last day for those issues that require compromise because a deadline usually encourages compromise. Why does this remind me of the student who waits until the night before a term paper is due to do it."

Normally, reporting about the policy issues around power deregulation and public school administration are less than engaging for readers. But in these instances, the legitimate mixture of policy and politics has produced widespread interest.

In recent years, newspapers across the country have reduced coverage of state legislatures and governments, either to trim costs or because the editors think readers have lost interest. But by not offering consistent government reporting, newspapers have shortchanged readers, many of whom still want full and committed coverage.

In my view, The Sun has done a good job with both aspects of the BGE and the city school stories and has given readers thorough and accessible reporting on the importance and the political ramifications of each.

Reader Quinton D. Thompson praised a number of Sun staffers, including the reporters who covered the session full-time: Andrew A. Green, Kelly Brewington, Jill Rosen and Skalka. "I wish to thank them for the comprehensive manner in which they covered and reported on Gov. Ehrlich and the General Assembly," Thompson said. "I feel I have been duly informed and am indeed most grateful."

It is not unusual for an unexpected issue to dominate a legislative session, but what made 2006 so different was that four major surprise issues - gay marriage, the Dubai Ports World deal, BGE and the city schools takeover plan - emerged. Along with these, reporters had to monitor legislative debate on changes to voter laws, stem-cell research funding, restrictions on sex offenders, eminent domain and many others. Inevitably, some issues did not receive as much coverage as they deserved.

Sun reporter Green said, "The word `frenzied' doesn't begin to cover what the last 90 days were like."

Green noted that because Maryland has its first two-party government in a generation, reporting has become more demanding - and more interesting.

"Because issues are now so often caught in a philosophical and political tug of war, The Sun has to focus on a much broader array of people in Annapolis, which is challenging but ultimately produces a richer public debate," Green said.

In my view, The Sun also made a smart decision to eliminate the traditional "Winners and Losers" list from its wrap-up coverage. That opinion-based compilation had become too simplistic and contrived to provide really meaningful analysis for readers. The "'06 session: looking back" feature provided a more balanced and thoughtful evaluation of the session's highlights.

Even though Ehrlich has not officially announced his bid for re-election, the races for governor, U.S. Senate and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates have now begun.

"It's going to be a doozy of an election," Green said.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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