The annual attempt to require Maryland truckers to cover loose loads of sand or gravel with tarpaulins failed today as it has in the past, but it came to a vote by the full House of Delegates for the first time in a decade.
The House appears headed toward approving a measure, described by some legislators as a compromise, which would prevent truckers from piling their loads as high as possible.
The latest effort to enact a covered-load bill -- backed by those concerned about the hazard from flying rocks and other material blown off trucks -- differed from recent attempts because it came on the House floor; previously it met death in the House Environmental Matters Committee where it ran into the powerful truck lobby.
This year's failure was attributed by many lawmakers to the fact that proponents of a tarpaulin bill were seen as challenging the committee system.
The committee had approved a bill that would keep entire loads below a truck's sides; under existing law loose loads may be piled as high as possible in the middle.
Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's) proposed an amendment to the House today that would force the covering of loose loads. He said he preferred an amendment because efforts to get the measure through the environmental matters committee had failed in the past, sometimes under circumstances that seemed bizarre.
Two years ago, for example, the committee chairman called a vote with half the panel out to lunch. Last year the measure was narrowly defeated in committee because of a delegate's vote-trading deal on an unrelated matter.
Devlin's initiative today today got nowhere. The vote was 77 to 38 against his proposal, and some lawmakers expressed indignation at the attempt to make an "end run" around the committee. e
"I've been here 14 years and never seen this happen or tried before," said Speaker Pro Tem Daniel J. Minnick Jr. (D-Baltimore County).
At one point, before the vote, it seemed that the gremlins that plagued the covered-load measure in past years were at it again. Half the lawmakers, it seemed, had not received copies of Devlin's amendment.
Devlin said that this "seems to be following in the tradition," prompting House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin to declare: "Those remarks were uncalled for." Cardin said he would recognize Devlin's amendment but would not "condone it."
Devlin defended the measure and his method of bringing it up. If Congress had similarly disdained such so-called "perennial" issues, he thundered, "slavery would still be law and women's suffrage wouldn't have been voted on."
Devlin lives, he said, in a district crisscorssed by major highways, including the Capital Beltway, Central and Kenilworth avenues and Rtes. 3, 50, and 301. In his seven years as a delegate, he has had two windshields smashed by flying rocks from trucks while he was just driving to the legislature, he said.
"This is a safety bill," added Del. Ida Ruben (D-Montgomery), who called it the most talked-about issue "wherever I am" in her county.
"The committee has listened to all sides over the years and is trying to resolve the issue on its merits," said Del. William H. Weir (D-Baltimore County). Weir said he supported the committee's so-called "no-speaking" bill and argued that the most damaging stones or rocks come from the treads of truck tires or are spewed from the rear tailgate, not from the top of the load.
The arguments on both sides were admittedly old, but the vote was new, the first in the full House in a decade. It was watched closely by truck cover proponents in the Senate, which has repeatedly passed the measure to no avail.
"We believe in redemption of souls," said Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery), a perennial sponsor who likens the annual truck-cover ritual to the "Perils of Pauline," "except each time Pauline gets killed in the most exquisite and unique fashion."
Today's House vote, he said, was "programmed for failure," because it became a referendum on the committee system. "If a clean bill ever comes to the House floor, it wil pass," he predicted.
The Senate Constitutional and Public Law Committee, of which Denis is a member, is expected to approve a truck-cover bill and send it on to the House. "We're keeping the pressure on and we're not discouraged," said Denis.
Today's House vote, he said, was "a first skirmish. We expect to win the battle." Then, hedging his bets, he added, "Maybe I should say 'hope.'"