Proposed laws for few rankle many

Md. lawmakers, lawyers on the lookout for bills known as 'redheaded Eskimos'

April 12, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

A couple who lives near Sen. Joan Carter Conway wanted desperately to have a child but couldn't afford a fertility treatment not covered by insurance.

So Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced legislation that would have mandated coverage if the man had a specific disease - non-obstructive azoospermia - and the woman has suffered from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.

"It does cover a very small segment of the population," Conway said as she defended the measure on the floor of the Senate earlier this session. "The reason why I crafted the bill in this manner is because the individuals have these disorders."

Conway's bill was one of several introduced this year to benefit a single constituent or organization. In Annapolis, such measures have a memorable name: the redheaded Eskimo.

Like freckles and orange hair among Arctic aboriginals, such bills "stick out because they are extraordinary," explained Frank Boston, an Annapolis lobbyist.

Lawmakers, legislative analysts and lawyers are always on the lookout for them. They're particularly common when lawmakers try to alter pension benefits for friends or allies. The Maryland Constitution frowns on laws crafted for just one person, so the bill-drafters often give their measures titles and descriptions to make them sound as if they are far-reaching.

Conway's bill was called "Health Insurance Benefits for In Vitro Fertilization Donor Sperm." It narrowly passed the Senate, only to be killed by a House committee.

Lawmakers defend the practice, saying life is messy, and people occasionally find themselves in extenuating circumstances that cannot be remedied through normal administrative processes. They deny that they craft such legislation to help special interests or well-connected constituents.

Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano said the practice "has been in existence since the beginning of time." Such bills come up more often in years where lawmakers are facing voters and are particularly attuned to their constituents' desires, he said.

"In an election year, it is the mating season for redheaded Eskimos," Bereano said.

These bills frequently wilt under scrutiny from the General Assembly's committee system, but they can be revived in the session's waning days. "The last couple days things start flying across your desk and it is tough to keep up with everything," said Donald C.Fry, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a former state senator.

Another such measure, introduced by Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley, was designed to extend the state's homestead tax credit to couples living separately in two homes that are more than 90 miles apart.

The bill would benefit a constituent in his Western Maryland district, but Brinkley said he introduced the legislation believing there could be others in the same situation. It faces opposition from local officials who don't want a loophole that would deny them revenue. It is stuck in a committee.

Despite their nickname, the bills can be difficult to spot. They usually don't appear on first reading to be narrowly tailored. The reason is the constitution discourages legislation crafted for a single person or group. Daniel A. Friedman, counsel to the General Assembly, said members are not allowed to write "special laws" that apply only to one particular person, excluding others in the same general class of circumstances.

Karl Aro, head of the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, which assists the Assembly, said his staff advises that such bills be drafted in a way that "could possibly apply to other people or entities if those conditions are met."

Legislation amending the state's pension laws are fertile ground for bills that benefit a single person - and this year there are at least four such pension bills.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced a bill for the widow of a 35-year Court of Appeals employee. The man failed to check off a box allowing his wife to share his benefit, and died a week after retiring.

"He paid money into the system his whole life," McFadden said. McFadden's bill, which would allow the widow to collect money, passed in the Senate but awaits House approval.

Howard Plienes, director of legislation for the State Retirement and Pension System, said the system's board of trustees generally dislikes such bills. "It is something that is being done a little bit differently - a little bit out of the ordinary," he said. "The board likes to keep things nice and clean."

The pension bill receiving the most attention was introduced by Anne Arundel Democrat Del. Barbara A. Frush. It would allow retired circuit court judges to continue collecting full pensions even if they are hired by the state. Under current law, those pensions - about $94,000 a year - can be reduced under those circumstances.

Frush said the bill is designed to draw former judges back into state service, including a Prince George's County judge she knows. "We have this incredible pool of talent," she said. Legislative analysts found there were two judges currently employed by the state who would benefit.

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