A measure that would restrict the sale of beer in Maryland by nonresident dealers was killed by the House of Delegates today after it was discovered that a delegate who was not present when a vote was taken was recorded as voting for the bill.
After discounting the vote of Del. Irwin Hoffman (D-Hagerstown), whose voting machine was stuck on "aye" after he left the House chambers, the bill had only 70 votes, one short of the number needed for passage.
Although reconsideration is possible next week, the vote apparently ended the curious life of House Bill 92 -- the only legislation in the General Assembly this year that had been delayed four times on the House floor and twice sent back to committee, once for an unusual closed-door discussion.
Although the Economic Matters Committee approved the bill on an 18-to-3 vote last month, several committee members conceded in interviews with The Washington Post that they were unsure what the bill would do, even while they were voting for it.
An article in The Post that outlined the committee members' confusion about the bill also noted that it was introduced by a Prince George's delegate, Nathaniel Exum, at the request of a wealthy Upper Marlboro beer distributor, Irwin Buck, who for years had been engaged in a territorial dispute with a beer wholesaler from the District of Columbia.
Buck was quoted in the article as saying he "presumed" the bill would help him in his battle with the Washington beer wholesaler, Howard Rosenberg, by making it more difficult for Rosenberg to sell in Maryland the same beers Buck distributes.
The article also noted that the same bill was introduced in the 1978 session by Del. Daniel Minnick (D.-Baltimore County), who said he could not remember who asked him to submit the measure or what it was supposed to do. The Economic Matters Committee killed the bill by a 17-1 vote that year, but Del. John Wolfgang (D.-Prince George's), who then chalred the committee, said it was a "stupid mistake" and that he and other committee members thought they were killing a different bill.
On Wednesday of this week, four days after the article was published, Del. Frederick Rummage (D.-Prince George's), the new chairman of the committee, held a private committee session to discuss the article and the controversial bill.
Rummage invoked a seldom-used clause in Maryland's open meetings law to hold the first closed-door committee meeting since the state passed "sunshine" legislation in 1977. That clause says that if two-thirds of the committee members agree to it, a panel can hold an executive session if they have a reason so exceptional and compelling that it overrides the public's right to be present.
Three reporters who were in the committee room at the start of the session were asked to leave by Rummage. After the session, Rummage argued that the "extraordinary circumstance" was The Post article, which he said was "an attack on the integrity and the ability of members of the Economic Matters Committee." He said the article "left the impression that the members of the committee don't know what they're doing.... It made members of the committee look like idiots."
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin said he was not informed of the closed-door session until ti was under way, but said he would "stand by" Rummage's decision.He added that he would in the future be "very, very restrictive" about the use of executive sessions.
Cardin and 36 other delegates -- including most of the leadership -- abstained during today's vote on the bill. Most delegates from Prince George's and Montgomery counties voted against it. Rummage said he was unsure whether he would attempt to have the vote reconsidered next week.