When bill 913 popped up on the Maryland Senate's crowded agenda, most senators were looking the other way.
The excitement was out in the lounge and the back corridor, where more than a dozen senator were scheming for the impending, long-anticipated debate on the state budget. Meanwhile, bill 913, unnoticed and undebated, was passed unanimously before most members had a chance to read it.
As it turns out, this overlooked page of legislation had more than a little impact. Supported by the real estate industry, the bill would reverse a recent ruling and strip most Maryland real estate salesmen of workmen's compensation benefits.
In the last, frenzied days of the legislature's three-month session -- which will end Monday -- such a bill is not unusual. Each year at this time hundreds of bills pass unnoticed through the House and Senate, making radical changes in Maryland law or aiding special interest groups.
"This is the time when all the sleazy bills start slithering across the hall from the Senate to the House and the House to the Senate," said Del. David Shapiro (D-Baltimore). "These are the days when you've got to be careful."
Indeed, it is in these closing days of the three-month session that legislators act on more of the 3,000 bills filed each year than they do in the first month. While the attention of the leadership is focused on the most emotional issues -- like adding a penny to the gas tax or a year to the legal drinking age -- dozens of important measures with less political punch are disposed of in the time it takes to record a roll-call vote.
"I've timed it. It takes 30 seconds," said Montgomery County's Del. David Scull.
In some cases, these bills have been defeated once in floor votes, or sent back to committees presumably to be killed or redrafted. Then, in the crush of the last days, when most legislators have long forgotten about them, they resurface -- and quickly pass.
Bill 913 was stopped short in a House committee, where Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery) spotted its intent, prompting the committee to kill it. But other equally sweeping measures have so far had clearer sailing -- such as the bill that would abolish implied warranties on used cars after 60,000 miles. Or the one restricting consumer recourse against small loan companies that charge illegal interest rates. Or another that would weaken sign ordinances passed in the last few years by local governments around the state.
And then there are resolutions such as the one calling on the state to help some Baltimore businessman pay for a convention, to the tune of $50,000. The same businessmen had tried to get the money earlier this year from two state departments, but officials had refused to shell out the money in this tight budget year.
Greg Halpin, head of the state port authority, recalls that the convention on energy conservation for the shipping industry seemed a good cause, "but not one that is fiscally proper for us to get involved in." One of the group's techniques involved scraping barnacles off the bottom of ships, and Halpin noted: "The state doesn't do anything in shipcleaning."
However, the group dispatched Howard Needle -- a former legislator and a leading Annapolis lobbyist -- to Sen. Harry McGuirk and Sen. Cornell Dypski, who filed a Senate resolution asking the state board of public works to do what the two departments couldn't. The measure passed the Senate with no debate and only one dissenting vote -- about the same treatment given to resolutions honoring retiring employes or constituents' birthdays. It is now awaiting action in a House committee.
Then there was a seemingly innocuous little bill entitled "Outdoor Advertising -- Highway Signs" that flew through the House Ways and Means Committee to the floor on the assurance of its sponsor that it had no effect other than to "codify existing practices" in Baltimore.
Rockville delegates, recalling their town's laborious efforts to phase out unsightly highway signs, smelled a rat, though, and got the county attorney on the case. He concluded that the bill would force municipalities to pay $4,000 for every sign affected by local sign ordaniances.
A chagrined Del. James Lighthizer (D-Anne Arundel), whose subcommittee had unwittingly sent the bill to the House floor, said later: "Here we thought this was a nothing bill, and look at it. It's major legislation! I would have looked like a moron if that bill had gotten through."
Once the bill ran into trouble, lobbyist Richard Rombro, who represents Foster and Kleiser of Baltimore, one of the nation's largest outdoor sign companies, surfaced to try to rescue it -- confirming suspicions that the bill was more than just a local measure.
"There's really very little to it," Rombro insisted, saying that similiar repayment requirements already applied when governments restricted signs along highways. Rombro succeeded in getting the bill referred back to committee before it could be killed -- and now it is back on the jammed. House calender, amended so it does not apply in Rockville or Lighthizer's Anne Arundel.
There are a few legislators in both chambers who devote themselves in the final weeks to monitoring these 11th-hour bills, delighting in the few they can stop or temporarily derail. This session, for example, Sen. Victor Crawford (D-Montgomery) hired an assistant in the final month for the sole purpose, he says, of reading the hundreds of House bills that reach the Senate, where they normally receive little more than a hasty hearing and a quick floor vote.
In keeping with legislative protocol, Crawford blames only the opposite chamber for careless lawmaking. "It's unbelievable what the House will send over in the last week," he says. "Bills we killed in the Senate the first month will come out of the House and then fly through here the last nights of the session."
In some cases late in the session, perfectly innocuous or technical bills will be held up or killed by these watchdog legislators simply because they look suspicious or are hard to understand.