An hour before the police declared this city's streets closed to all but emergency vehicles, legislators slogged to the state Capitol with bills on dozens of issues, from artificial insemination to pensions, which had to be filed today to meet a preliminary legislative deadline for introducing bills.
In the frenzy, 601 bills were filed before today's "courtesy deadline," after which a bill no longer is guaranteed a public hearing. That was followed by another hectic rush among legislators to get to their homes, as far away as the mountains of Western Maryland and the marshes of the Eastern Shore, before the snow made travel impossible.
Some legislators, hearing of 10-foot drifts on the highways, resigned themselves to spending at least part of the weekend in Annapolis, "stocking up on the food and the booze," in the words of one delegate. On the second floor of the statehouse, an aide to Gov. Harry Hughes arrived with a suitcase full of clothes for the weekend.
After brief and jovial morning sessions in the House and Senate, all but one committee canceled afternoon hearings and further legislative business was suspended until Monday.
"I was looking forward to having just enough people show up so that we could suspend the rule and really do some business today," joked Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, who in deference to the 14 (of 47) senators who were no-shows today, extended the courtesy deadline for filing bills until Wednesday. On the House side, the deadline was not extended, but Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin noted that the final filing deadline is another three weeks away--although bills coming in after today will not necessarily get a public hearing.
Among the controversial bills dropped in the hopper today were three pension reform proposals that already have enraged state employes and teachers, a race track consolidation measure, and a banking deregulation bill that Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs has called "a blunderbuss."
The pension bills are designed to slow the costs that have continued to spiral despite a major reform of the system four years ago.
The banking bill, pushed nearly every year by the major banks, would eliminate state controls on interest rates and allow a fee on credit cards and variable interest rates on second-mortgage loans. In a victory for the banking lobby, the bill also would get rid of some consumer protections that last year had been tacked onto a bill that increased interest ceilings.
Others proposals introduced in the closing crush included administration bills that would increase penalties for drunk drivers, require safety seats for young children riding in automobiles and establish a Department of Labor, Employment and Training.
Dozens of bills were entered on issues relating to unemployment and financial hardship, including one to establish a bill of rights for the unemployed, which is strongly pushed by labor and equally strongly opposed by business. Others would provide shelter and food for the homeless, including one by Del. Chris Jones (D-Prince George's) that would allow vacant county schools to be used as shelters for the homeless.
As with many of the approximately 1,500 bills introduced before this weekend's rush, many of the late filings dealt with crime issues, from prohibiting the wearing of masks or hoods in certain public settings (an anti-Ku Klux Klan bill) to increasing the penalties for assaulting senior citizens. One House bill would set up a commission to plan a Vietnam War Veterans memorial for state veterans.
Measures on a variety of sensitive social issues also were introduced. In response to the case of a California couple who didn't feed their newly born Downs Syndrome child, Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's) offered an infant protection act. Pitkin also filed a bill that says that in instances of artificial insemination of a woman, the husband and not the donor would be designated in advance as the natural father.
Gambling also proved to be a popular subject. A Baltimore senator proposed a study on whether to legalize gambling, and two Prince George's delegates introduced measures that would set up a special lottery or sweepstakes based on horse races, and would allow the lottery commission to develop a game based on the professional football games.