General Assembly cries uncle' as storms force postponement of legislative sessions
Even the lobbyists stayed home.
Gone was the gauntlet of hired guns that dot the legislators' path to the State House. Inside, the usually bustling hallway between the House and Senate was sparsely populated. The galleries above the chambers were nearly empty.
With the Senate's clergy MIA on Tuesday, members searched for divine inspiration from President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Dist. 45) of Baltimore, who filled in.
And this was hours before the first flakes of Round Two fell.
To be sure, Annapolis was moving in slow motion this week.
All legislative activities were canceled Monday the first time that happened in seven years. The workload was light on Tuesday and almost nonexistent Wednesday, with Mother Nature unleashing her full fury for the second time in a week.
When the Senate took its quorum call before adjourning at 10:47 a.m. Wednesday, 32 of 47 senators were present.
"And remember this day," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach. "You were one of the 32 that showed up today. It's a mark of distinction. It's something you should be proud of."
Despite the temporary good cheer, the General Assembly now must play catch-up.
"You're starting to get into the meat of the schedule now, with the hearing dates set and the general public being aware of when they're supposed to come to Annapolis to testify on legislation, and unfortunately, some of it [is] going to be postponed," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis. "That means committee hearings become longer, and the work becomes more condensed."
Most legislators made it into town for Tuesday's morning session, despite snow-covered roads and slick sidewalks in the capital city that Miller called "disgraceful."
"We're here and it's important we do as much work as we possibly can," he said during Tuesday's session.
This week's schedule change "puts the onus on the latter days of the session, which are already tough enough," said Miller.
Legislative leaders canceled all committee hearings Wednesday, out of concern that the weather would discourage some people from testifying in person. All House committee hearings were canceled for Thursday, when both chambers were scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Senate committees were meeting on a committee-by-committee basis.
"Our main concern is the general public having a full and fair debate on legislation," Busch said in an interview Tuesday. "Much discussion has been made since the opening of session about transparency and openness with the general public. This is all about continuing to ensure the general public their access to their government."
Meanwhile, the House extended to early next week a deadline for filing bills so that they are guaranteed a hearing. Busch said that the snow had kept both legislators and bill drafters in the Department of Legislative Services away from Annapolis and that the pipeline was backed up by about a half-week.
Evidence of the backup was on display Wednesday. The Senate, which had extended a filing deadline that comes a week earlier than the House's, required a vote by each of the senators present to suspend the rules so that new bills could be introduced. With a backup of legislation, about 200 bills were read into the record.
Busch was confident that business would get done, even if it meant coming in on an extra Saturday.
"If the budget stays on schedule, I think the vast majority of other pieces of legislation will be fine," he said. "If it gets backed up behind the budget, then it becomes a little more problematic."
The winter storms put the two biggest factors of the 2010 General Assembly the budget and an election year in a different context for some lawmakers.
Local transportation departments are smarting from a 95 percent cut to highway user revenues. Local jurisdictions put the state aid toward road upkeep, including snow removal.
The success or failure of a snow-removal operation can make or break political careers, said Del. Murray D. Levy, because it greatly affects each and every constituent.
"[Budget planning] is not always about an economic crisis. Sometimes there's a real natural occurrence that threatens people's lives, and the one place they turn to is their governments and you've got to be able to do that," said Levy (D-Dist. 28) of La Plata, who is not seeking re-election. "I've never had anyone call me up during a snowstorm and say they're worried about their taxes."
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. said he received only a few calls from constituents about power outages or unplowed roads over the weekend.
"I think most people realize it's a Pepco issue, it's a county issue," said Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington.
Still, he helped where he could, including culling information on outages from Pepco's Web site for neighbors who didn't have the juice to fire up their computers.
"People are just looking to find someone who can give them some answers," he said.