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April 2, 2007

General Assembly Journal 2007 - Volume 11

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week was full of disappointments and depressing outcomes as the General Assembly session moved toward its final week.

Instead of the expected focus on solving the structural deficit, addressing utility rate increases, and expanding access to affordable health care, the 2007 Session will be known instead as the year that felons got the right to vote, we abandoned the Electoral College, and illegal immigrants secured in-state tuition to the University of Maryland.

It all seemed so promising at the start. The Democrats were full of love and excitement with Gov. Martin O'Malley's victory. The possibilities for legislative accomplishment seemed limitless with the pesky Republicans once again relegated to "second tier" status.

Even the oft-strained relationship between House Speaker Michael Busch (Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (Calvert-PG) looked positive. Delegate Busch laid out an aggressive agenda, focusing on reducing the 750,000 medically uninsured Maryland residents by at least half, passing major environmental cleanup bills, controlling college tuition increases, and continuing to fund public education.

Senator Miller took a slightly different tack. He argued against major program expansions, but at the same time urged action on a slot machine gambling initiative, something he was unable to accomplish while Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., was in office.

Many Democrats (including Senator Miller) tried to lay the blame for slots failure at Ehrlich's feet, but only the gullible or stupid bought that. A more likely culprit was Speaker Busch, fearing a successful Ehrlich slots initiative early in his tenure would have been an insurmountable feather in the electoral cap.

From the outset, Governor O'Malley sought a middle ground. He wanted some major initiatives funded, including healthcare access and environmental cleanup, but the bills he chose to introduce were minor policy matters compared to some of the more comprehensive solutions sought by the legislature.

A comparison: Health Care Access

House Version: A $300 million increase in our state Medicaid program, covering every child and all adults below 116% of the federal poverty level. The bill is anticipated to add a minimum of 90,000-100,000 lives to the rolls of the insured; required insurers to cover children on an adult's policy until age 25, regardless of student status; and funded in the first years with a $1-per-pack cigarette sales tax, but funded in the out years by the uncompensated care fund.

Senate Version/O'Malley bill - A $3.2 million dollar increase in the Medicaid program, insuring between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The administration bill also includes the 25-year-coverage component of the House bill. This measure requires no dedicated revenue source since the amount is so small by comparison.

The O'Malley bill is so weak it almost doesn't justify passage. Wonder if the administration will hold a press conference to celebrate the bill's passage, even though it accomplishes next to nothing? The bigger question, at this point, is will the administration bill even make it out of the House? I seriously doubt it.

Right now, the leaders of both chambers are staring one another down in a battle of wills, Speaker Busch's will to pass a major policy bill and President Miller's demand for slots as a funding mechanism.

While the House and Senate seem to have trouble dealing with tough issues statewide, they are showing no signs of weakness when it comes to passing bills for the betterment of the state's Democratic Party.

Last week, the legislative leaders conspired to pass a bill extending voting rights to felons following the completion of a sentence. In spite of passionate floor debate on the issue, it passed on an almost party line vote.

Not content with that expansion of the Democrat voter rolls (studies across the country prove conclusively that felons granted the right to vote almost always vote Democrat), the legislature turned it's attention last week to what they say is a pressing political issue.

If I weren't already pretty damned jaded, I might have believed Del. Jon Cardin [D., Baltimore Co. (Sen. Ben Cardin's nephew)] when he claimed Maryland needs to take the lead in dismantling the Electoral College. Fortunately, I see through the charade.

Democrats (here and elsewhere) want to require that states that enter an electoral compact will require electors to cast ballots for the national popular vote winner. In 2000, had this law been in place, Al Gore would have been elected president. In 2004, George W. Bush won the popular vote, so every Maryland elector would have had to cast their vote for Dubya, even if they were a die-hard Democrat and hated the president. It wouldn't have mattered under the provisions of this bill, as every Democrat's vote would go to the popular election winner.

Why the rush to rip asunder what the Founding Fathers created in their infinite wisdom? To consolidate Democrat power in the large, urban centers, that's why. Under this scenario, especially out west, hundreds of Electoral College votes will be taken off the table. The large urban areas already have most of their power consolidated; this will push them over the top and bury rural America!

Finally, in a further attempt by the Democrat leadership to create a "safe harbor" environment, the House passed a bill extending in-state tuition to the University of Maryland. The bill says that any high school student who attends a Maryland high school for two years, and whose parents sign a promise that they'll pursue legal status (uh, yeah) can receive in-state tuition rates if they are here without documentation.

Kids that grew up in Frederick, spent their whole lives here, but join the military and move away don't have that same benefit. Also, the bill specifically excludes people who are living in the country legally from the provisions of this bill.

So, now we can add in-state tuition rates to the growing list of handouts and benefits extended to illegal immigrants. They also can receive a valid Maryland photo ID card, access to subsidized healthcare and housing, education, and language and interpretation services at no cost.

Seems very sad that we had the chance to pass major health care reform, and instead we settle for giving felons the chance to vote and illegal immigrants the ability to attend our state university system at the discounted rate for in-state students.

Call it a silver lining in the legislative cloud, but after three tries, Jessica's Law finally passed this year: mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for repeat child sex offenders. It drew the attention of Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who berated House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario for killing the bill in past years.

This year, tired of his Fox News infamy, Chairman Vallario signed on as a co-sponsor. I guess it's true that even a blind hog can root out an acorn every now and then!


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