After three days of delaying tactics by opponents, the bill that would strip the Burning Tree Club of an annual $152,000 property tax exemption because it discriminates against women was finally voted out of the Senate Finance Committee tonight on a 4-4 vote.
Because of the tie vote, the legislation, which would affect Elks, Moose and Masons' organizations as well as the exclusive, 600-member all-male Bethesda golf club, goes to the Senate floor with neither a favorable or unfavorable report.
Proponents consider today's vote a victory because they feared that either delaying tactics--there are only three days left in the session--or amendments tacked on in committee would kill the bill.
The committee's vice chairman, Sen. Dennis F. Rasmussen (D-Baltimore County), infuriated the legislation's chief sponsor, Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), by spending three days requesting various amendments, all designed to kill the bill.
After failing to get a fifth vote in favor of the bill, Bainum this afternoon asked the committee chairman, Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams (D-Baltimore), to call for the committee vote. Abrams called the eight committee members off the floor into the Senate lounge this evening to consider the measure.
Even without the committee's recommendation, Bainum said he believes he can muster the 24 votes needed for passage by the full Senate. But any amendment approved on the floor, even a technical one, would likely result in defeat of the measure because it would be almost impossible to get concurrence on such a controversial bill in the closing hours of the session.
Although it is a local measure, which ordinarily would be approved with little or no debate in both the committee and on the floor as a courtesy to the sponsoring delegation, the so-called Burning Tree bill has become one of the more controversial issues of the session. Legislators have been lobbied non-stop on both sides, with Gov. Harry Hughes and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs involving themselves this week on behalf of the legislation.
Today, some opponents threatened a filibuster, an action unheard of on a local bill.
Rasmussen's first amendment would have exempted all charitable groups, such as the Elks, Moose and Masons, from the bill. He was supported by Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) who said, "If you want to go after Burning Tree, fine, but don't go after these other groups with a shotgun. It's not fair."
Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery), whose district includes Burning Tree, pleaded with committee members to remember the bill would be applicable only in Montgomery County. "Your tactics are transparent," he told Rasmussen and Bromwell. "You know perfectly well if this bill goes back to the House now it is going to die. Burning Tree is in my district and I've been battered on this bill so much I'm bloody. But I support it and I ask for local courtesy on it."
The vote on Rasmussen's first amendment was 4-4, which was good enough to defeat it. Then Sen. F. Vernon Boozer (R-Baltimore County) introduced the same killer amendment that had been offered on the House side, that would make the legislation apply statewide.
Boozer asserted that applying the bill to one county was unconstitutional and said, "If it's good enough for Montgomery, it's good enough for the state."
Bromwell, who two minutes earlier had called the bill "overkill," turned to Denis and said, "I'm just asking for local courtesy. If discrimination is wrong in Montgomery, it's wrong in my county too."
"I feel like I've been transported to another dimension," Denis said. "A minute ago this was a bad bill for Montgomery County; now it's a good bill for the entire state."
Again, the vote was 4-4, defeating the amendment.
The vote on the bill itself also was 4-4, with Boozer angrily telling his colleagues, "I resent being put in a position of having to vote against a bill like this. If it was just country clubs, fine, but the way you did it was wrong and I resent being pushed into a corner like this."
Bainum was delighted to finally get a vote since Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg had promised he would bring the bill to the floor as soon as possible. Steinberg is committed to voting for the bill.