Wrapping up the 2005 General Assembly
What little’s been done is likely to be undone
by Debra George Seidt
Share everything. … Play fair. … Clean up your own mess. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
These pearls of wisdom come from Robert Fulghum’s 1986 bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a book that perhaps should be a primer for the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich after what many are calling another contentious session between the Democrat-controlled legislature and the Republican governor. Marked by political wrangling, this year’s session skirted several major issues, including stem cell research, slots, medical malpractice and taxes. As senators and delegates pack up their bags until next year, Gov. Ehrlich is preparing to undo some of their hard work via executive vetoes.
High on Ehrlich’s veto list are two bills that affect business and employees alike. The minimum wage bill would increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour, affecting almost 28,000 Maryland residents. Business, however, lobbied against the bill, arguing that it will be a burden on small businesses. The governor, who campaigned on a pro-business platform, has promised to veto the measure, and the business lobby has hopes his veto will come and hold.
“We’re going to work during the interim to peel away votes,” said William Burns, communications director for the Chamber of Commerce, of legislators he hopes to sway before next session, when the veto is likely to be voted down. “We’re hoping legislators are going to hear from business people.”
Also passed was the so-called Wal-Mart bill, which would require businesses that employ more than 10,000 people in the state to spend part of their payroll on healthcare for employees. Four companies in Maryland — Giant Food Inc., Johns Hopkins University, Northrop Grumman and Wal-Mart — have more than 10,000 employees, but only Wal-Mart fails to meet the provisions of the bill. Ehrlich plans to veto this “anti-business” measure as well, but it, too, has enough votes to override the governor’s veto next session.
On the last day of session, legislators and the governor were doing what they seem to do best: disagreeing. In testimony to the relationship between the General Assembly and the governor, several bills were passed that would curb Ehrlich’s powers.
The General Assembly used its power to override the governor’s veto on two bills, one that limits his ability to replace members of the state Board of Elections and another that limits the governor’s ability to make international trade agreements.
Before the session ended at midnight Monday, April 11, lawmakers also approved a bill to alter the way the Board of Public Works sells public land. Under the provisions of the bill, a constitutional amendment will be put before voters in 2006 asking them if the General Assembly should have final approval on all land deals. Under current law, the Board of Public Works — a three-member board consisting of the governor, State Treasurer Nancy J. Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer — approves the sale of state lands. Last year, however, Ehrlich came under fire after trying to sell land in St. Mary’s County to a campaign contributor.
Clean up Your Own Mess
Unlike last year, the environment took a backseat to a more “modest” agenda, according to the governor’s office. Brownfields and the flush tax were big, environmentally friendly bills that passed in 2004, while this year, only one Bay bill passed, and it may be vetoed by Ehrlich. Anne Arundel County Del. Barbara Frush introduced legislation that would require a comprehensive study of non-native oysters before they could be introduced into the Bay.
“It will not go down as a banner year for the environment,” said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Brown called the oyster bill only “a small step in the right direction.”
Two bills that would have lessened air pollution died in legislative committees, and only some funding was restored to the open space program for land conservation.
“There was a big push to raise the public’s awareness about the diversion of land funds,” said Brown. “We’re not putting nearly enough effort into land conservation.”
Out in the World …
When Ehrlich gave his State of the State address in January, he focused on the word “respect,” setting the stage for three months of butting heads with members of the General Assembly. The session opened with big issues like slots, medical malpractice, stem cell research and a statewide smoking ban on the forefront of the General Assembly. One by one, however, each bill died before making it to the governor’s desk.
For the third year in a row, slots died, even though it passed both the House and the Senate. Two different versions of the bill were sent to conference committee, which could not reach a compromise. Ehrlich, who tempered his slots push this year, has publicly said slots will not be introduced until after the 2006 election.
In December, legislators convened in a special session for medical malpractice only to have the final bill vetoed by the governor. Even though lawmakers overturned the veto at the beginning of session, Ehrlich’s promise to revisit medical malpractice did not materialize. His own bill died in committee after he was a no-show to testify.
After the federal government began limiting the dollars it spends for stem cell research, several states have taken funding into their own hands. Maryland was poised to join those states, as Baltimore County Sen. Paula C. Hollinger introduced a bill that would have put approximately $23 million into stem cell research. The bill passed in the House, but a threatened filibuster on the last day of session did it in in Hollinger’s own chamber, the Senate. She has promised to reintroduce the bill next session.
The 2006 legislative session coincides with an election year, which may bring even more disharmony between the General Assembly and a governor running for re-election. Chances seem no more likely that with those raised stakes they’ll agree to hold hands to make it across together.
top of page
Calvert’s Richest Fish: Seahorses by the Bay
Public art project has money to give away
by Carrie Steele
Calvert County’s colorful herd of seahorses have left behind an artistic legacy.
By auction and raffle last year, the 26 six-foot-tall Seahorses by the Bay, decorated by Calvert student artists, reined in some $90,000 for art education.
Though the seahorses weren’t made of gold, each one sold from $1,500 to more than $5,000.
That was more money than organizers ever dreamed of, according to Stacey Hann-Ruff of Annmarie Garden. It was enough to give $1,000 grants, made last month, to each of the schools that painted a seahorse. After expenses, that leaves $64,000 to be awarded in two additional types of grants.
For each of the next five years, a $1,000 higher education scholarship will be awarded to one Calvert County student seeking a degree in performing or visual arts or related fields. Seniors graduating from 2003 to 2010 from a Seahorses by the Bay school are eligible to apply.
“We really want to give one out this year,” said Stacey Hann-Ruff, director of the new scholarship, for which the application deadline is May 31. But, she added, “It’s not just for this year’s seniors. Even if a kid’s already in college and were from a school participating last year, they’re still eligible.”
The seahorses’ philanthropy also supports art-related projects created by students of Calvert County. Application deadlines for these grants are May 1, August 1 and November 1.
“The grant can fund any creative activity,” said Hann-Ruff. “It doesn’t have to be an art teacher’s project. It could be a play, a fine art project, a creative writing project, a mural, a summer camp or group of kids who are building kinetic sculpture.”
Only teachers can apply for these grants, which have no fixed amount. With their first deadline — May 1 — fast approaching, only one application has been received, so this is money waiting to be corralled.
top of page