The lobbying had reached such an irritating intensity by the morning after the jolting defeat that Del. Raymond E. Beck taped a sign to his back warning: "If one more person asks me about SB 92 (bankers), I'm voting against the SOB."
Senate Bill 92 -- the most important legislation this session to affect consumers -- fell to an unexpected defeat in the House of Delegates late Friday by a single vote. Passage of the bill, the banking industry's key push in Annapolis, would allow Maryland banks to charge 18 percent -- half again as much as the current rate -- on many consumer loans.
Its proponents still have one more shot at reviving the measure, and today they worried over whether to make that attempt through combat or compromise.
Combat won the day.
"We know we can ram this bill through," Chairman Frederick Rummage (D-Prince George's) told his Economic Matters Committee, which weeks ago gave the bill its blessing. "But do we want to?"
The answer, by way of a hefty vote against any compromise amendments, came back a resounding yes.
But opponents of the measure had other ideas.
"They thought they could ram it through Friday night, too," said Del. Stephen Sklar, the Baltimore Democrat who led the successful assault on the House floor.
Sklar had attempted to amend the bill so that the new, higher 18 percent rate would die automatically in two years, allowing the General Assembly to take another look at the industry's need for that rate. With Rummage opposing it, the amendment lost.
Then the bill came up, and for several excruciating minutes the backers tried to pull the necessary 71 votes onto the House's giant electronic tote board. They came up one short.
The state attorney general's consumer protection chief, H. Robert Erwin, who had been working the hallways and offices this week to get the bill amended, jumped from his seat with a smile.
Economic Matters vice chairman Casper Taylor Jr. left the House chamber dumbfounded.
And Del. Frank Komenda (D-Prince George's) and Banking Commissioner W. Holden Gibbs, both staunch supporters of the interest rate increase, went back to the committee office to commiserate.
"Look, I just don't like losing," Gibbs said later.
Indeed, the defeat was the week's State House shocker, considering the finesse with which the bill was maneuvered last month through the Senate.
In that chamber, opponents said, they could do little more than stand in bitter awe at the wonders banking lobbyist William Weaver worked in getting the measure packaged and stamped for approval within the session's first month.
Part of the process they pointed to was a three-day banking convention last May at the swank Boca Raton Hotel and Club on Florida's "gold coast" to which Weaver accompanied five Maryland legislators, including SB 92's sponsor, Sen. Jerome Connell Sr. (D-Anne Arundel).
None of the legislators paid for his plane trips or hotel stay, and all participated in panel discussions. None thought the trip influenced his position on Weaver's pet bill.
The measure swept through the Senate by a 31-to-13 vote, but when it hit the House committee, consumer lawyer Erwin joined the fray.
Erwin argues that though the banks are certainly due some increase in rates in today's inflation-racked economy, they have not justified the need for 18 percent. That rates makes consumers "bear the brunt of the current unstable financial situation," he says.
Erwin has argued instead to tie the rate to two points under the prime rate -- the interest banks charge their best corporate customers and a key barometer of the economy. Today that rate stood at 19 1/2 percent, but the rate floats with the economy and could go down again.
The banking industry, through Weaver and Gibbs, has argued that it needs at least 18 percent interest to be able to make consumer loans because of the ever-increasing rates the banks themselves must pay for money. In fact, Gibbs said this week, the 18 percent may be "too little, too late."
The increase proposed in the bill affects consumer loans, generally the loans taken out to finance a car or home improvement, and only those of $3,500 or more. The proposal would boost by about $630 the interest on a $6,000 bank loan paid back over three years.
Another provision of the bill would allow banks and retailers to charge a higher percentage on certain unpaid credit card balances. This could add a maximum of $12 a year to the credit card finance charges consumers pay.
Rummage sounded confident today that he and his committee can turn the defeat around. "If everybody goes to work Monday morning to pick up the votes, we know we can pass this bill," he told his troops today.
And Senate sponsor Connell seemed unruffled Friday night by the defeat.
"One vote, huh?" he asked a reporter who brought him the news. "Somebody's just holding out for something. They'll get the vote."