ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Senate Republicans began the 2004 General Assembly Wednesday with a protest against a rule change that would diminish their power to block legislation – they abstained from the vote to re-elect Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to his 17th term as Senate president.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said alterations to Senate Rule 77, which regulates extended debate, would quash minority opinion, and that the decision to abstain came only after lengthy discussion with Miller, D-Calvert.
If approved, the new rules would require three-fifths of the Senate to vote to end a filibuster instead of the current two-thirds.
“We have a significant minority that is anti-tax, pro-family values, and we fear that changes to the rules would relegate the minority voice to the margins,” Stoltzfus said.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, said he was ready to defend the rule.
“Rule 77 is dear to my heart, and I need to fight with every ounce of energy I have to keep Rule 77 in place,” Colburn said.
Senate President Pro-tem Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, called the Republican abstention “unfortunate.” Ruben was unanimously elected to her fifth term as president pro-tem.
After a lively exchange over proper procedures, the Senate delayed the vote on changes to Rule 77 until Thursday. In addition, the Senate will consider the fate of a series of bills vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., at the end of the last session, the most prominent being the Maryland Energy Efficiency Standards Act.
Despite the political tensions, Senate and House leadership called for a spirit of cooperation at the start of the 2004 session, but significant challenges could make that difficult. During its 90-day session, the Legislature must close a more than $700 million budget gap and determine funding for education reforms, among other contentious issues.
In the House, Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, told the delegates the new session offered “an opportunity to redefine government and to focus our resources on the values and priorities that are most important to Maryland citizens.”
Busch urged delegates to address the “controversial issues in a manner that does not personalize the debate” and to “respect the institution to which we were elected to serve.”
Busch was largely responsible for stopping Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s slots proposal during the last General Assembly session. Tensions remained high during the interim among Busch, Miller and Ehrlich over the governor’s proposal to install slots at racetracks and use the money to fund the Thornton educational reforms and other projects.
The Republican governor was flanked by his wife Kendel and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as he welcomed lawmakers back to the State House.
Ehrlich rejected an implication made by Busch that this second year of his term was the most important.
“Every year is important,” Ehrlich said. “This is just another important year . . . of a four-year important term.”
Other dignitaries present for the start of the session included Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
In his remarks to the Senate, Ehrlich encouraged lawmakers to “agree when we can agree, and disagree agreeably . . . and create the kind of environment (this administration) has tried to bring back to Annapolis.”
While lawmakers and family members found their seats for the start of the session, about 40 anti-abortion protesters gathered outside on Lawyers’ Mall with signs and posters of aborted fetuses. They were there, they said, to support a push by Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel, to regulate Maryland abortion clinics.
Members of Defend Life, a Washington-area anti-abortion group, said they wanted to show legislators what abortion looks like and encourage them to vote for Greenip’s bill.
Maryland law requires that abortion providers be licensed doctors but it does not set standards for abortion facilities.
“There are many more (abortions) we don’t know about because there’s no law,” said Jack Ames, director of Defend Life.
Greenip said she was grateful for the support but did not want comment on the protest because her bill is “about taking care of the women.”