Among bills in Md., only the strong survive


Maryland state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, left, Gov. Martin O'Malley, center, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, right, sign an offshore wind bill Tuesday in Annapolis. (Steve Ruark/AP)

On the first day of Maryland’s legislative session, activists stood outside in the cold for hours, protesting hydraulic fracturing and daring lawmakers to drink from murky water they said was contaminated by the process known as fracking.

Over the next several weeks, they lobbied for a bill that would ban the controversial drilling technique used for unearthing natural gas. They went to hearings during which representatives from oil and gas companies sparred with environmentalists. They made T-shirts.

In the end, they got nothing.

Like most bills introduced this session, this one died before hitting the floor. This year, 2,610 measures were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly; 766 passed both the House and the Senate. According to the Department of Legislative Services, that success rate, 29.3 percent, is similar to that of the average session, in which two bills die for every one that passes.

Some measures never have a chance; others make it past any number of bureaucratic hurdles only to die on the floor. Failure is such an integral part of the legislative session — the 90-day scrum that ended at midnight Monday with a New Year’s Eve-like celebration — that lawmakers joked that the confetti was their unsuccessful proposals.

In Virginia, by contrast, more than 50 percent of bills passed in recent years.

Of course, successful legislation gets the most attention. At a ceremony Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed 152 bills into law, while Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) crowed about what the assembly had accomplished.

“I thank everyone for coming together and probably making this the most successful legislative session of my lifetime,” he said.

He was referring to several high-profile bills that passed this year — gun control, death- penalty repeal, a gas tax increase — many of which were praised by liberals. But if the bills that grow up to be laws reveal the legislature’s priorities and values, so do the measures that are put out of their misery.

So rest in peace House Bill 1108, which would have provided an artificial turf field for every high school in Prince George’s County. And a moment of silence for the measures that would have allowed the sale of alcohol in grocery stores, banned smoking in a car that has a child in the back seat, and prohibited cursing at Maryland Transportation Administration bus drivers and train conductors.

Although medical marijuana passed, decriminalizing small amounts of pot did not — nor did legalizing the drug entirely. Relaxing regulation for midwives went down quietly in a House committee. And a measure to establish new standards for liability for dog bites died on the House floor amid a shouting match between two Montgomery County lawmakers.

A bill prohibiting online merchants from automatically signing up customers for subscriptions lived for 54 days before receiving an unfavorable report from the House Economic Matters Committee.

Raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2015? Nixed after 50 days.

And for the sixth year in a row, a proposal to allow slot machine gambling at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport died.

“Until someone gives me a good reason why we shouldn’t put the slots at BWI, I’m going to put it in,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Eric M. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County). “Sponsors change, opinions change, committees change. You never know what will happen in an election year.”

It took the better part of a decade to get slots approved at a handful of sites across the state. Las Vegas-style table games just arrived at two Maryland casinos.

Sometimes it just takes time. Or a persistence that might seem delusional one year and brilliant the next.

“People aren’t ready to just jump on a completely new area of law without taking some time to learn about it,” said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery).

When she introduced a measure about surrogacy, which would clarify the rights of children conceived through sperm and egg donation and their parents, she knew it had little chance. But it had a hearing. People were at least talking about it. And that was enough.

“It’s a new thing,” Dumais said. “I expect it will take a year or two longer to pass.”

Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) knew that his bill to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks would not advance out of committee. But he proposed it to provoke debate.

“There hasn’t been awareness of this issue in Maryland in a long time,” Parrott said. “We brought in expert witnesses to talk about what science has learned about what’s going on in the womb.”

Even though the bill was stuck in a drawer by the committee chairman, Parrott is still proud.

“Everyone in the committee heard that discussion,” he said. “I think that’s something we’ll be able to build on.”

There are other reasons people forge ahead with apparently doomed bills.

“People will propose legislation just to make sure the issue is out there,” Dumais said. “You can tell your constituents: ‘At least I took it to the legislature. I got it some discussion.’ . . . I don’t want to say people will do it for headlines, but sometimes, they do. Our job is to weed those out.”

Perhaps no one takes that role more seriously than Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who sees himself as a human filter, sorting the frivolous from the serious.

“Every session, we pass a thousand laws, then nine months go by and all the sudden you got 2,000 new laws we gotta get passed.”

Many lawmakers bemoan the bills that they say are little more than a waste of time. Sometimes, lawmakers will get so fed up that they present legislation to limit the number of bills lawmakers can put in per year.

Those measures fail, too.

“I think the General Assembly is reconciled to the fact that people are going to put in hundreds of bills and all that we can do is vote them down if they’re stupid, which they usually are,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). “You can’t limit it. It’s a form of expression.”

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