The General Assembly session is well into its final month now, bringing on those frazzled days when tedium stretches into exhaustion and reason yields to political panic. This is the time when legislators have to start worring about all those bills about taxes and racing and when, for all their anxiety, they begin to turn to some unusual means of excape.
Like debating the merits of pay toilets, for instance. Last week, while bickering over budget cuts raged between House and Senate, and floor sessions on other issues grew longer and more bitter, the House twice paused to consider the question of pay toilets and whether they are a tool of economic and sexual discrimination.
It was Prince George's Del. Tom Mooney (D.) who brought up the issue, and he did seem, to have a point: Pay toilets, he claimed, are unfair and ought to be banned because there are those who cannot afford them and because "there is sex discrimination involved -- there is no such thing as a pay urinal."
Somehow this bill reached the House floor, and soon it was all Speaker Benjamin Cardin could do to restrain the debate. "This bill stinks," was the cry from several delegates. "I think it's unnecessary," argued Del. Thomas Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), "because you can always crawl under the door."
Eventually, the bill was voted down before a large Monday-night gallery. But soon there were new rumblings on the issue. Several delegates called for the vote to be reconsidered, and by late in the week, even Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore City), the mogul of legislative vote-trading, was hustling tired delegates from the lounge to the floor with the cry, "We gotta do pay toilets!"
This time the bill passed amidst declarations that pay toilets constituted an issue "that must not be flushed." And so this week, the Senate will have its chance on it. "What you think of all this depends on whether you believe it's a serious issue -- and I think it's a serious issue," says Mooney.
While the pay-toilet debate flouished, another group of legislators could be found one evening at midweek on a stage in front of their colleagues, doing their best to mock most of what they had worked on during the session. It was the annual Legislative Follies, where for $15 one could see Del. Ida Ruben (D-Montgomery) do her dance routine and hear Sen. Howie Denis (R-Montgomery), sing in a wailing voice about the troubles of Lt. Gov. Samuel Bogley, the oft-forgotten second to Harry Hughes.
"It's lonely out tonight," Denis began in the style of a recent popular tune, "and the feeling just got right for a brand new Guv song -- Somebody-done-Sam-Bogley-wrong song."
That one followed a dance number dedicated to Hughes and called "Hibernation Harry" and a mock hearing on "Creationism in the Classroom," in which the chief witness was an ape, "Jim Wrong, " who represented the Maryland Minority."
Naturally, the legislators who wrote the script went out of their way to see that the legislators running for the vacant congressional seat in Prince George's County received their proper share of needling, too. One scene portrayed Democrat Stewart Bainum, a delegate-candidate who once proposed a tax on bowling and chaired a subcommittee that planned new fees on trucks, announcing still another levy -- a tax on blind people.
One skit described the platform of another Democratic contender, Sen. Edward T. Conroy of Bowie, this way: "I'm for Applehood, Mother Pie and the American Flag." Finally, an announcer intoned that the next meeting of the Prince George's delegation would take place not in the statehouse, but in the Board of Elections office where candidates file.
All the frivolity didn't add up to much, however, in the 12-hour days of politicking that now possess the legislature. Within minutes of the follies finale last week, House Speaker Benjamin Cardin could be seen arranging for negotiations on fiscal matters with Senate Budget and Tax Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan of Montgomery County. When the pay-toilet debate was finished, Mooney and the other members of his Environmental Maters Committee went back to battling over utility regulation.
All of the politicians here will probably consider themselves lucky if they can still laugh three weeks from now, when this money-conscious, fractious session is over.