The bingo-for-cash bill for Montgomery County was designed simlpy to benefits charities, and nothing more insidious.
After all, said Del. Ida Ruben, a Montgomery Democtrat who sponsored the legislation, the Moose, Elks, Veterans, religious and other nonprofit groups who delight in bingo for fun ought to be able to raise money for their projects through bingo in Montgomery County as they can in 19 other jurisdictions in the state.
"There are a lot of people who like to play bingo but only end up with a closet full of teddy bears," she said.
But before the bingo bill reached the floor of the legislature - as it barely did before the 1978 General Assembly ended Monday - it became mired in a procedure practiced only by Montgomery County delegates.
Because some saw it as opening the door to gambling, the bingo bills languished for two months inside the county delegation, undergoing drafts and redrafts, amendments and more amendments, stern memos and sheaves of paperwork amounting to hundreds of typewritten and photocopied pages.
It was not just the subject of the bill that led to all the activity. The procedure was Montgomery County's way of handling the hundreds of bills of strictly local interest that it considers during the legislature.
These local bills are so named because they affect no other locality.
They deal with bond issues, tenants' rights, gyms in jails and so on. Each jurisdiction submits its own batch annually, but usually the bills are dropped in the hopper and passed with little fanfare through the tradition of local courtesy.
But in Montgomery County, which has more of these bills than any area, local bills are undertaken with an unmatched zeal.
This has led to a system that many delegates now criticize as cumbersome and arduous, focusing too much on technical details (which could be handled by a drafting staff) and too little on ideas. The system, say critics, requires a disproportionate amount of the time they need for larger, statewide issues and their own personal bills.
"It's torturous," complained Del. John X. Ward (D-Montgomery) of the procedure.
Several facts of life govern the Montgomery County style. One is that any citizen who has an idea for a bill can be assured that it will become a formal proposal. Unlike other delegations, the county legislators don't screen the ideas. In fact, many unresolved legislative issues reappear year after year, like the thorny bi-county matters they address with Prince George's County.
Consequently, the purely local bills in Montgomery County amounted to more than 200 this year, up about 20 from last year. This is more than some standing legislative commmittees consider during the entire 90-day session.
"We encourage people," said Del. Lucille Maurer, vice chairman of the Montgomery County delegation. "We say we'll listen to everybody with an idea. That's what your constituency wants and we owe it to them. But we also owe it to them to concentrate on statewide issues. We need more of a balance."
Once a bill is in the delegation hopper (in July before the legislative session), it will be threaded through an intricate process that begins with public hearings in the County in the fall and ends with delegation meetings in Annapolis during the legislative session.
Each Monday night while the legislature is in session, the Montgomery County delegates, armed with coffee and a foot-tall pile of files, meander into their pale green, windowless chamber for three or four hours of deliberations on these measures.
There, before interested citizens and a coterie of county officials, they review their own commmittees' reports and debate the proposals among themselves. It is here also that they frequently get bogged down in details of legislative drafting and wearily drift into the wee hours of Tuesday morning when tempers flare.
Paragraphs are renumbered; commas are added and subtracted by votes and amendments; titles are changed.
"We wear ourselves out and we don't get much accomplished," said Del. Jerry Hyatt (D-Montgomery). "If you like the idea and know basically what it's about why not go with the bill, instead of worrying about the commas and periods."
These sessions are tedious and decorous, like the "Supreme Court," complained Ward. "God forbid, if you crack a joke, someone bangs the gavel."
Prince George's County Del. Frank Pesci slipped into the public meeting once to visit a Montgomery County colleague and recalled how some stares suggested he had broken protocol. When Del. Roy Dyson (D-St. mary's) dropped by to speak on a bill last month, he opened his remarks, with "Having never sat in on one of your sessions . . ." and was interrupted with a self-mocking quip by Del. Don Robertson, the Montgomery chairman: "It's mysterious, Roy."
As these legislators toil in their chambers, many others are visiting their favourite watering holes down the street.
"Montgomery County consistently gets more out of their delegates than anyone else," insisted Ruben.
If the bill is passed by the delegates, it goes to the county senators, who by contrast, express their yeas, nays and amendments in short order.
Montgomery County senators and delegates maintain a distant relationship even though their offices are across the street from each other. They communicate by mail and formal memos and rarely meet.
Once this year when the Montgomery County senators were considering a bill of Rubens, they had a question.
"How did we communicate with her? Was there any thought of calling her up or even sending a smoke signal or carrier pigeon? No, we decieded to send her a letter," said Sen. Howard A. Denis, the lone Republican in the county legislative delegation.
"It's a typical lack of communication, a "lack of trust, by each house toward the other," he sadded.
However, no one has come up with an acceptable alternative.
"The citizens want to be heard," said Irvin Wolock, a former president of the Montgomery Civic Federation. "You can't tell them that when something affects their home, their livelihood, their neighborhood, that you can't give them an opportunity to speak up."