ANNAPOLIS – Weekend shifts and 10- or 12-hour workdays are typical this time of year for Susan Phelps, but lately it’s been busier than usual.
She and her staff of about 20 in the Department of Legislative Services’ bill-drafting office are trying to keep up with the largest bill backlog they’ve seen in 10 years.
Lawmakers have submitted more than 1,200 bills since the 2005 session opened a little over two weeks ago, Phelps said. That’s about 100 more than this time last year. Hundreds more are expected before the end of the 90-day session.
Which would be fine, but for looming introduction deadlines. After those, lawmakers risk having their bills tied up in the Rules Committee. For the Senate, the deadline’s Feb. 4; for the House, it’s Feb. 11.
A Legislative Services staffer Friday asked the House of Delegates to get requests in more quickly.
Between 1998 and 2000, the Senate introduced an average 830 bills per session; the House averaged 1,360, according to the Maryland Manual.
Phelps’s office has had to call lawmakers to say their bills are being delayed. She said most take it in stride, but “it seems like it’s hard for them to understand why it’s taking so long.”
Phelps said some bills take longer to process than others, depending on their length and complexity.
But Delegate Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, has an explanation for the unusual delay this year.
Third-year sessions typically see a swell of bill requests as politicians prepare to make their cases next year for re-election. But this year, he said, the number’s even higher because of a confluence of “big issues” that the chambers must tackle, such as medical malpractice, juvenile justice and environmental concerns.
“You can’t fix these giant problems with just one or two bills,” Zirkin said. “I don’t remember in my seven years being down here there being this many large issues at this one time.”
Delegate Susan McComas, R-Harford, has a more mundane explanation. She said some lawmakers have had trouble getting in touch with state agencies, experts and other groups to help draft bills. She’s seen the same in political give-and-take with other lawmakers.
“We’re trying to get things out as quickly as we can,” McComas said.
He said he hasn’t gotten a call from Legislative Services, having dropped most of his dozen bills in the hopper.
Phelps said she is “concerned” that some bills will not meet the deadline. But she’s not on the verge of panic.
“We’ll get them done one way or the other.”