ANNAPOLIS – The contentious 2004 General Assembly session passed the halfway point last week, and with the exception of overriding three gubernatorial vetoes and repealing a time-sensitive part of Thornton legislation, some lawmakers are concerned that nothing much has been accomplished.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has repeatedly chided members of his chamber lately for concentrating most of the work at the beginning of the week, rather than spreading it out.
“Right now, you can see we have very light days during most of the week,” Miller told reporters. “It’s human nature, but right now there are a lot of bills being introduced.” Some bills, like Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s transportation bill introduced Feb. 26, should have been ready before the session started in January, he explained.
Gazette political analyst Barry Rascovar said Miller’s concern stems from his responsibility to manage the flow of work through the chamber.
“His chief concern is if the chairmen of these committees continue to put off votes, they could end up scheduling triple floor sessions to get everything through,” Rascovar said.
Maryland’s General Assembly is limited to 90 days.
Miller has said he would prefer a pace similar to one he orchestrated as committee chairman when he made sure one major bill made it to the floor each week.
The Legislature began with a flurry of votes overriding three gubernatorial vetoes, most notably the governor’s rejection of the Maryland Energy Efficiency Act. That party-line vote set the tone for what many predicted would be an acrimonious three-month session.
Since then, though, few of the hot-button issues have found voice outside the committee room. Lawmakers are still considering a bill to ban assault-style weapons, bills to give same-sex couples legal rights and the governor’s revised slots proposal.
Some of the concern may be warranted since the Senate has introduced 25 percent more bills this year than last and the House 34 percent more. By the 47th day of the session, 914 bills were introduced in the Senate and 1,500 bills in the House. In 2003 by the same day, only 731 bills had been introduced in the Senate and 1,121 in the House.
Legislative and Committee Support Coordinator Michael I. Volk said the seeming spike in legislation may just be a return to normalcy.
“The first year of the governor’s new term accounts for the drop in the number of bills last year,” Volk said. He explained the phenomenon results from the large amount of turnover in lawmakers and personnel.
But Volk and Department of Legislative Services Executive Director Karl Aro said a new administration can also spawn an increase in legislative activity.
“Departmental legislation and the size of the executive agenda can also increase bill filings,” Aro said.
By March 3, lawmakers had made 3,213 bill requests – asking for help in drafting legislation – compared to 2,696 requests during the entire Assembly session in 2003, a 16 percent increase. The last two years of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s term saw bill request totals of about 3,000. Over the last five years, 75 to 80 percent of all bill requests have been introduced in the Legislature.
Even though the perceived spike in workload may be just a figment of the imagination, Rascovar said Miller’s concern over the flow of legislation was justified.
“If the backlog continues, it becomes very easy to delay votes and then you end up with extended debates,” Rascovar said. “And as you get a lot of these controversial issues backed up, a lot of good bills die.”