If the Maryland Seante is still going full tilt at 11 p.m. on Friday, it is usually safe for reporters to take a stroll. Anyone who has spent a few evenings in the Upper Chamber will testify that the quality of debate there tends to deteriorate after the members have eaten supper. (It must be something in the food.) So by 11, and especially on a Friday, they have pretty much lost their appetites for the heavy issues.
That was my thinking when I wandered into the Senate lounge at about 11 last Friday night, intending to call it a week. There, I ran into a savvy-looking, fashionably-dressed woman -- a stereo-type of a Montgomery County political activist if ever I saw one -- who asked if I were a reporter. I confessed that I was.
She proceeded to tell me the inevitable that she is a Montgomery County political activist and that she found The Post's Annapolis coverage extremely disappointing. The articles just don't get into the issues, she told me. "Why, you'd think this was a circus down here from reading The Post," she said.
These were strong words. Feeling duly chastened, I sentenced myself to spend the rest of the evening with the distinguished senators from Maryland's 47 districts, listening intently for the issues that our critic believes we have given short shrift.
As I walked through the wood-paneled doors, I beheld Senate President Pro Tem Frederick C. Malkus Jr., the white-haired wonder known affectionately to his colleagues as the "silver fox." The issue that propelled the gentleman from the Eastern Shore to his feet was a Health Department budget cut that had passed the Senate overwhelmingly. The cutback, Malkus had learned, would deprive one of his constituents of a job.
For weeks, the senators had been pledging themselves at every opportunity to the cause of fiscal austerity, no matter whose ox was being gored. But at 11 p.m. on a Friday, with Malkus at the mike, and all the television cameras gone for the week, nobody got too emotional about putting a job back in the budget.
Malkus, a longtime lawyer who knows how to jerk tears from a jury, pointed out incredulously that three positions had been cut from the linen service department at a hospital inhis native Eastern Shore.
"This must be oversight," he said as if he believed it. Then he went on to tell the touching story of one of the affected employes, a linen service worker who is only 16 months away from retirement and whose son is a state trooper who helps guard the statehouse. Malkus' amendment flew through the Senate with practically no opposition.
Next up was Sen. Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Steinberg informed his colleagues of yet another devastating Health Department cut. This one had done away with the job of a local dentist.
Like Malkus, Steinberg took the tear-jerker approach. The hard-working dentist had served the state for 10 years and already had lost one job when Mt. Wilson hospital in Baltimore County was closed. He had been promised a transfer to a Hagerstown hospital, and had eagerly accepted it, planning to commute there daily to earn his $36,900-a-year keep. Again, the Senate obliged.
There was one certifiable issue that emerged that night, although it is surely not the sort that warms the heart of a liberal civic activist. It came in the form of an amendment that limits health insurance benefits for state employes who have abortions. The amendment, which passed handily, denies insurance coverage to women employes who have abortions unless their pregnancy threatens their physical health or is a result of rape.
Sen. Edward T. Conroy (D-Prince George's) emerged victoriously from the chamber waving a copy of the amendment after it passed on a voice vote. It puts the same restrictions on state employes' abortions that now apply to Medicaid-funded abortions, Conroy noted. And why should state employes be treated any differently than the poor?
And then, of course, there was the Senate's favorite whipping boy: The new, computerized, million-dollar phone system. Sen Howard Denis (R-Montgomery) argued that the members should discontinue funding for the system and return to the phones of yore. This prompted several senators to imitate the bing-bong, ding-dong computer-type sounds that the phones emit when the buttons labeled "*" or "#" are pushed.
Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) turned on a music box and held it close to his microphone, simulating the tunes that the phone system plays for callers placed on hold. Bars of "Beautiful Dreamer" wafted through the chamber. Finally, Senate Majority Leader Roslie Abrams (D-Baltimore) rose to put the matter in perspective. The governor's floor leader spoke eloquently on behalf of the new system, putting it int he context of Progress, casting its opponents as the forces of Regression.
"I, too, would like to go back to the good old days when things were simple and life was easy," she said. "But the computers are here to stay." In closing, she added: "Bing, bing, Bong, bong, bing."