In three frenzied and frantic days at the closing of last year's General Assembly session, House and Senate conferees slashed millions of dollars for health care for the poor, for state employe pay raises, and for equipment in state-funded hospitals. All the actions occurred behind closed doors.
The news organizations and one legislator who were locked out in the hall won a court ruling late last spring that said the conference committee violated state law when it met secretly. But the Maryland Court of Appeals--which upheld the ruling Tuesday--said there is nothing the courts can do to enforce the state open-meetings law in such legislative forums.
The question seems moot, as this year legislators are changing their procedures in an effort to avoid conference committees.
The two House and Senate committees reviewing the state's budget already have begun joint meetings, in hopes of avoiding the last-minute legislative horse-trading.
"We'd like to get together early and see if we can work out our differences," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Budget and Tax Committee. "We're trying to avoid a major conference committee."
But the senator who was locked outside last year, Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery), called this attempt at House-Senate harmony an effort to thwart the court ruling and a threat to the concept of a two-house legislative branch of government.
"I think they're trying to short-circuit normal procedures," said Denis. "The leadership is very much afraid that we're going to force them to conform conference committees to the open-meetings law. The advantage of doing it now is that they can circumvent the open-meetings law.
"That's not the way the system is supposed to operate," Denis added. "We should compel all advocates of all legislation to submit themselves to questioning from two different committees."
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin said, "It does compromise it the bicameral legislature somewhat. But because of the limited session, we have to make some compromises. We only have a couple of weeks at the end of the session, and that's not enough time to work out our differences."
Traditionally, those differences have been resolved at the end of the 90-day session with conferees swapping millions of dollars for programs in cloakrooms or in meeting rooms out of public view. It was a tradition as old as the State House itself, until last year when Denis and about a half dozen reporters tried to sit in on the budget conference.
Denis and the reporters were evicted when House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Hargreaves moved to close the meeting "due to the negotiating aspects."
Opinions vary as to the meaning of the Appeals Court decision finding the closed meeting violated state law. "It means we can close our meetings," Hargreaves said. "There has to be negotiating taking place in these conference committees. It makes it more difficult in an open process."
Levitan said he will ask the attorney general to draft rules to allow the conference committees to meet in secret.
But Denis, his fellow senator, said he will force State House authorities to arrest him, rather than be excluded from another meeting. "The court of appeals has said that the conference committee is open," Denis said. "I do not intend to leave the conference committee again."