The Maryland Senate, with most of the year's major legislation lingering unresolved on its calendar, met for a marathon session today, but found itself at the mercy of its most time-honored tradition: the filibuster.
While an education aid package, a racing reorganization plan and a measure raising the state's drinking age awaited floor time, a series of Senate factions today halted almost all activity by engaging in what they called "the art of extended debate" on minor but emotional issues, ranging from the right of the news media to record court proceedings to the prerogative of ophthalmologists to use certain types of eyedrops.
Late in the evening, the Senate was able to free itself from delaying tactics long enough to enact one of the two major education aid bills -- a measure that would appropriate $4.6 million in aid to community colleges. But a second aid bill distributing $8 million in "targeted" aid to needy school districts and a special revenue measure to finance the two aid programs gained preliminary approval, but final enactment was delayed.
The House spent most of the day monitoring the logjam of issues in the Senate adn tinkering with its one controversial bill -- a proposed one-cent-per-gallon increase in gasoline taxes. The Ways and Means Committee approved a series of amendments to the bill this morning despite warnings from Gov. Harry Hughes and the Senate leadership that the changes would kill the tax proposal.
The Senate filibuster even led House leaders to consider dropping any plans of passing a compromise version of the gasoline tax. House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), who has long opposed a gasoline tax increase this year, said: "You have to understand that the Senate is backed up a lot of our House bills are backed up and we don't want to pass this tax if it's going to lead to another filibuster on the Senate floor."
The impending doom of the gasoline tax increase -- a top legislative priority of Hughes and the Senate leadership -- was hardly discussed, however, on a day when virtually every advocate of pending bills was frustrated by filibustering senators, who preached for hours on end to a chamber full of empty chairs.
"This is totally disgraceful," said Sen. Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D-Prince George's) as he slipped out of the Senate for a breather late in the afternoon while the arcane discussion of eyedrops droned on. "I'm embarrassed. I've got some of my constituents up in the gallery. They see me sitting down here doing nothing and they think that's the way we behave all the time."
When Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) interrupted the proceedings briefly to introduce visiting constituents seated up in the gallery, he muttered: "It's very nice to have you here and I hope you can understand what's happening."
The scenario was all-too-understandable to the 25 senators then gathered in the lounge across the hall. At least five bills now awaiting action in the Senate are opposed by well-organized factions, which together comprise almost the whole Senate. For now, with the mandatory midnight Monday adjournemnt approaching, they have ganged up to support each other's filibusters to prevent any of the contested measures from being enacted.
Other senators supported the filibusters because, they contended, the state would be better off if the Senate were prevented from enacting any more new laws. "I have a philosophy that if something has waited this long, it probably shouldn't pass anyway," said Sen. Robert Stroble (R-Baltimore County).
Senate leaders acknowledged that it was a mistake to have left so many emotional isues until the last days of the session, but none was willing to accept the blame for the glutted calender. A frustrated Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore) darted fruitlessly from one senator to another in the lounge, trying to gather the needed 32 votes to cut off a filibuster by Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery) against a bill that would ban the use of recording devices at criminal trials. "We can't get the votes," Abrams said, waving a short tally sheet of senators' names. "Whoozit doesn't want prevailing wage (a labor-backed bill to raise the pay of construction workers on state contracts). and Whatsit doesn't want the optometry bill (allowing optometrists to use eye drops now restricted to opthalmologists). And Joe Blow doesn't want the racing bill (establishing a state racing authority to buy and run a thoroughbred track.)"
"I think it's lovely of Howie (Denis) to go on like that," said Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore), as he slumped into a sofa in the Senate lounge. "It gave me time to go out for a walk, drink a beer and eat a sub."
Meanwhile, Denis was still standing at his desk, reading word for word from the ruling of a state judicial council that authorized the use of cameras in courtrooms -- a ruling that the proposed bill aimed to nulify. After three hours he agreed to postpone the rest of his argument, but he later gave up his fight and the bill was easily enacted.
Denis's decision to yield, however, only provided opponents of the prevailing wage bill with an opportunity to threaten a filibuster. And when that debate was put off, the defenders of ophthalmologists began stalling tactics that promised to last well into the evening.
During one short break in the day, the Senate did manage to enact two of the session's most-debated bills with little discussion.
One of the measures, a state-wide law for regulating conversions of apartments into condominiums, was the major priority of Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist. The compromise bill provides limited protection for elderly tenants and gives local jurisdiction some control over condominium conversions, though moratoriums are effectively banned.
The Senate also unanimously approved a bill that would repeal an unusual and controversial utility rate procedure that has allowed quick gas and electric rate increases in Maryland over the past four years. Utility lobbyists, who mounted a major effort to gut or kill the consumer bill, were trying to amend another version of the bill still in the House, but their efforts appeared to be undercut by the Senate vote, which enacted the rate-making ban.
Late in the day, the ongoing filibusters began to raise tempers in the Senate, as leaders feared that major legislation would die for lack of time. "The curtain is coming down," said a crestfallen Sen. Mickey Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), the floor leader of the racing bill."If it doesn't go tonight, there won't be time."