I think the dust has sufficiently settled in Annapolis now to comment about the farce otherwise known as the 2006 session of Maryland’s General Assembly – noted by the Wall Street Journal as America’s worst. (You can’t blame me, I’ve never voted for any of them – I was an Ohioan the last time these folks were elected.)
The interim few days also gave me time to peruse some of the media coverage of the last session day, along with overviews of the session as a whole. I culled items from the Baltimore Sun, the Gazette, the Washington Times, and press releases from both parties in order to read up on the spin and the real results.
The session started and ended with a flurry of veto overrides. At the start the Democrats in the General Assembly made the Fair Share Health Care Act (generally known as the “Wal-Mart” bill) part of the state’s law books and further frustrated Maryland small businesses by increasing the minimum wage $1 to $6.15 per hour. To finish the session, the Democrats blocked efforts by the state to take over the failing Baltimore City Schools, mandated the governor must reappoint and have reconfirmed his Cabinet secretaries if he wins a second term (a clear usurpation of executive power); and overturned Ehrlich’s veto of a bill selecting early polling places that the Democrats in the General Assembly picked out, likely to their partisan advantage.
What was most noteworthy and certainly drew the most attention on the last session day was an attempt to modify proposed electric rate hikes that would begin this summer. The proposed increases came about as a sort of payment due from deregulation legislation that was passed back in 1999, under previous Governor Parris Glendenning. To be more specific, long-term contracts that locked in prices paid by consumer electrical suppliers (particularly Baltimore Gas & Electric) were set to expire and current market rates are set much higher. Instead of possibly 6-10% increases every year from 2000-2006, this balloon mortgage of sorts was slated to force a 72% rate hike on BG&E customers – a group that is a huge voting bloc, possibly the largest in Maryland short of party affiliation.
Legislation to modify these increases managed to make it through the House of Delegates, but the Senate could not ratify the bill in time. Cinderella’s horse-driven coach turned into the pumpkin of a possible special session to resolve the matter.
Moreover, the rate increases aren’t limited to just the Baltimore area, as the juice that runs my computer (and heats/cools my house, does my cooking, etc.) comes from Delmarva Power, who’s also looking to increase rates by a significant percentage. The effects of electrical deregulation have obviously become a contentious issue, and a sidebar to it is a proposed $11 billion merger between Constellation Energy (BG&E’s parent company) and Florida Power and Light. That merger was also held hostage to the whims of the General Assembly, which isn’t too friendly to business interests.
Now, generally I’m a free-market sort of person, and what I can’t understand is how deregulation didn’t work in this instance. I suppose the only explanation I can think of is that because the electrical power industry is so capital-intensive and also quite dependent on other natural resources (coal, natural gas, etc.) that new players and competitors have a difficult time getting started. Conversion is the key in this case – something has to be converted to electricity, at least until someone figures out a way to transform natural lightning into a form useful enough to supply your typical 120 volt outlet.
As it stands now, a guy like me is looking at about $300 a year more for electricity. Strangely enough, my electric bills are higher in the winter than the summer, but most people will see big bills come July and August, just in time for the campaign season to begin. For their part, even though the Democrats in the General Assembly passed the deregulation legislation in the first place and it was signed by a Democrat governor, they’re calling it “Ehrlich’s rate hike.”
And that’s a good part of the spin that they try to attach to their achievements during the 2006 Assembly session. Some items cited in their press release include:
$462 million for schools. The problem with saying that is that Governor Ehrlich sets the initial budget, so that was his amount of money – the D’s simply chose not to cut it.
The “Healthy Air” Act. In other words, more regulation on Maryland’s utilities, which will likely benefit those downwind of us moreso than our state. So I guess Delaware thanks us, while our electric rates go up to cover those mandates.
Fighting the “Ehrlich” utility rate hike. Since no legislation passed, and the Democrats run the General Assembly, I’m not certain that I’d call this a “victory.”
Fighting voter supression. In fact, I’d say the bills passed by the Democrats fight it so well that many people are going to vote 2, 3, even 4 times! And what a surprise, they’ll vote for Democrats.
Stem cell research. The devil is in the details. Personally, the only stem cell research I favor is that performed on non-embryonic stem cells. Any why is it up to the government to fund this research? Wouldn’t one think that a private comany would love to come up with a cure for an ailment that affects a large number of people and be able to profit from that? Maybe they’re seeing how the pharmaceutical industry gets treated by our lawmakers and it forces government to step into the breech.
College tuition. I have an issue with the state funding college tuition anyway. Sometimes I think that the purpose of college has become almost the same as that of a vocational school. You go to school to say, become an architect, and unless you apply yourself to the purpose like I did you don’t learn what is truly higher education, that of critical thinking.
A pay hike for “working families”. First of all, how many “working families” in Maryland really work at minimum-wage jobs? Most of these are held by teens or part-timers, where these low wage jobs exist. The market in Maryland is such that the average Joe working someplace makes far more than minimum anyway. But this measure increases costs for everyone regardless of income.
Minority Business Enterprise. At the risk of pissing off readers who trace their ancestries to sub-Saharan Africa or south of our national border, and even those who are physically capable of carrying and bearing children, I have to say that this should be phased out. I don’t believe in discrimination for or against a certain group, and a leg up to “minority” business enterprises, while necessary a generation ago, is no longer required if you ask me. Even if you don’t ask me, it’s my blog and I say so. MBE should have been sunsetted this year as proposed.
Juvenile justice failures. Honestly, with no kids in Maryland’s system, I’m no expert on whether juvenile justice needed to be reformed. This mostly has to do with a veto override in the first days of the session.
Teacher pension improvements. Yes, now Maryland is in the “middle of the pack” instead of the bottom. What they don’t say is that the teachers themselves will be fronting most of the costs. Need to keep that quiet, like the teachers’ unions would ever endorse a Republican anyway.
Tax relief. As the press release says, “Dems proposed and passed tax relief measures for those in need.” In this case, they determined homeowners, seniors, the disabled, military retirees, and heirs of small business owners were in need. I don’t have a problem with the list, but I wonder how many of these bills were Democrat versions of those introduced by Republicans, which did happen in this year’s General Assembly simply to make sure the GOP could get no credit. Really I’d like to see everyone get a tax cut though, not just a selected few.
For the GOP side, they chose a lighter approach in their view of the session. They selected the “Top Ten Silliest Bills” of the 2006 session. Rather than rehash the list (hey, just go read it – it’s funny in a sad sort of way) I wondered just how our local Assembly men and women voted on these bills! That’s way more important to me.
10. House Bill 1292 did not make it out of committee, no local elected officials were among the sponsors of either this measure or the companion Senate Bill 1017.
9. Senate Bill 983, believe it or not, passed 45-0. Both local Senators were among the 45.
8. Senate Bill 136 was defeated in committee. Sen. Richard Colburn (District 37) joined two other Republicans and 13 Democrats to sponsor the bill.
7. House Bill 1037 did not pass through its committee. No local Delegates were sponsors of the bill.
6. Senate Joint Resolution 15 passed 45-0 as well. Again, both of our Senators voted for the resolution. I have to comment on this one. Let me see, the trek of Lewis and Clark started in Missouri, correct? I went to Missouri for my vacation last year and I took two days to drive the distance. So, back in the days of horseback, that was likely a weeks’ trip or more. What the hell does Maryland have to do with this?!?
5. House Bill 1468 died a quiet death, not even getting a committee vote. None of our local Delegates were involved.
4. Senate Bill 735 was approved by its committee but did not face the full Senate. I’m not able to find out if either local Senator voted for the bill in committee or not.
3. House Bill 681 sailed through on votes of 138-1 and 133-0 (a version amended by the Senate.) All of our District 37 and 38 Delegates voted for this. The companion Senate Bill 824 was voted against by Sens. Colburn and Stoltzfus, but they were outvoted 37-8. I guess the saving grace is that an amendment sunsets the bill in 2010.
2. House Joint Resolution 2 was shot down in committee. No local Delegate was a co-sponsor.
1. Senate Bill 235 was selected as the silliest bill by the Maryland GOP. The bill allows pets to have their own trust funds. Now, I like Sen. Stoltzfus, but his voting for this makes me shake my head. Senator Colburn voted no. The measure passed the Senate 33-13 but no House action was taken.
All I have to say is thank goodness it’s over. At least the state can’t pass any more bills that restrict my freedom and grant goodies to whomever is deemed the chosen few until January of 2007, where hopefully the makeup of the General Assembly is such that any bill vetoed by Governor Ehrlich (assuming his reelection of course) would have the veto stand. I’m not that crazily optimistic that the GOP will suddenly become Maryland’s majority party, but we need to start down that road at some point.
Otherwise we might be wishing to become part of a “greater Delaware” and see what adding the “red” Eastern Shore does to that blue state.