Assembly presents a new test for the DeMarco factor

February 18, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

He's been David to so many Goliaths. Every time someone says he can't possibly overcome one force or another, he smiles and turns to his well-tended list of volunteers around the state.

Or he trots out a poll showing that many Marylanders want stricter gun control, how they agree that big corporations should provide more and better health coverage for workers, or how many of them back a higher tax on cigarettes to expand health insurance coverage.

He helps legislators see that a vote for his initiatives is smart politics.

The formula doesn't get old. It's worked against the National Rifle Association, Wal-Mart and legislators who don't like the idea that Vincent DeMarco can make things happen in Annapolis and they can't.

So this year may be a real problem.

Mr. DeMarco - former state assistant attorney general, current president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, and the most successful anti-gun and pro-health lobbyist in Maryland - has support. The House speaker, Michael E. Busch, has adopted his plan. It's early, but the effort to expand health insurance coverage by adding a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes stands a better than usual chance of passing.

This is clearly not good. How can you play the underdog when one of the Assembly's presiding officers is your partner?

The bill Mr. DeMarco wants passed was written by Baltimore Del. Peter A. Hammen, chairman of the Committee on Health and Government Operations. This is approaching a lobbyist's dream team: two important members of the General Assembly pushing your idea. The speaker's bill is likely to come roaring out of the House, fueled by the problem of inadequate access to health insurance and by a resurgence of Democratic zeal for taking on society's biggest social and financial issues.

But not to worry. There's always something to lean on when things are too encouraging.

Never a fan of the "DeMarco effect," state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is suggesting he won't support the cigarette tax increase. He's not against insuring the poor, but he wants to raise money via slot machine gambling, not by taxing smokers.

The cigarette tax might be a relatively easy one to pass, except: The controlling political thought in Annapolis, as of now, is that one big bill dealing with tax reform and the structural deficit is the way to go. Next year. So there is a bias toward delay of smoking taxes and slots.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration wants to do the tax thing right and imagines it will only have one good shot. And it knows legislators have to find something nice to take home while they're explaining their vote for higher taxes. A health care bill like the one Mr. DeMarco supports saves lives and money. It's the kind of thing that will help when votes are being rounded up - so some may want to hold it until next year, when the comprehensive legislation has ripened. Mr. Miller may want to hold it prisoner because passing a revenue-raising measure now might reduce pressure for slots.

Mr. Busch wants action this year. He says that if Mr. Miller and his senators oppose his plan, they'll have to explain why they voted against a bill that promises so much help to so many Marylanders, including taxpayers who pay for the treatment uninsured people receive in expensive emergency rooms.

Yet despite support for the delay, there are reports of conversations about how and whether to start dealing with the revenue problems this year. These discussions include a largely unaddressed aspect of the money problem: the importance of expanding programs in the areas of health, highways and higher education. All the talk has been about the looming $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion deficit, but not much about the need for growth.

Mr. DeMarco's forces are, once again, ahead of the curve. They're addressing one of these issues - health insurance - in a way that accelerates the more measured pace of the legislature. Many of the pieces are in place: powerful political backing, an urgent problem and Mr. DeMarco's phone tree.

And there's one more argument. The plan is potentially a signature initiative for the Assembly: progress in an area where states all over the nation are struggling to find solutions.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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