In the Maryland General Assembly, it seems that everyone has one's own definition of a snake, none of which has anything to do with scaly bodies or limbless reptiles. But in general, the definitions all agree that a snake is a piece of legislation that has a poisonous bite: a bill that materializes out of nowhere, appears initially to be benign, but strikes suddenly to devour the public interest.
The General Assembly, which ends its 1986 session Monday, is in the midst of snake season, that time of year when the slippery stuff starts wriggling its way through the legislative process, camouflaged by the confusion that inevitably reigns in the final days of the assembly.
Snakiness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, as Del. Gary Alexander (D-Prince George's) mixed his metaphors recently: "One man's snake is another man's apple pie."
For legislators faced every year with thousands of pieces of legislation, snake detecting is often more of an intuitive art than a science. A particular sponsor or lobbyist may offer a clue, but legislators often have to rely on a kind of sixth sense. "It's a feeling that creeps up on you," said Alexander.
That sixth sense came into play about 10 days ago, when a bill titled "H.B. 1836; Vehicle Laws-Class E Dump Service Registration" hit the floor of the House of Delegates.
The bill set off a number of alarm bells for some alert legislators. In the first place, it had a very high number, making it one of the last bills filed this session. In fact, H.B. 1836 was introduced on the last possible day that bills are guaranteed a hearing.
H.B. 1836 was also very short, just 17 lines. As such, it fit one of Del. Lawrence LaMotte's criteria for a snake. LaMotte, a Baltimore County Democrat, defines a snake as "a 'simple' bill, usually very short, which eliminates vast quantities of existing law." In the closing days of the legislature, LaMotte said, "we look very closely at the one-liners."
On its face, H.B. 1836 made a relatively simple change in state law, permitting trucks that haul construction materials to be classifed in the same category as dump trucks. What the 17 lines of type didn't say was that the bill would also allow such trucks to increase their gross weight from 46,000 pounds to 65,000 pounds.
The bill was opposed on safety grounds by both the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Police. "It would tear hell out of the roads," said one DOT lobbyist. No one spoke in favor of the bill at the House committee hearing.
H.B. 1836 drew attention for other reasons as well. On the House floor, particularly in the Prince George's delegation, the bill was regarded as a favor for Andrew O. (Sonny) Mothershead, a former Prince George's legislator who runs a $10 million-a-year construction supply company that sells dry wall.
Mothershead, who said he requested the bill from Del. Francis Santangelo Jr. (D-Prince George's), has close political ties to Economic Matters Committee Chairman Frederick C. Rummage, for whom Mothershead has raised campaign funds in the past. The bill came out of that committee.
Mothershead, in a telephone interview, said the legislation was not specifically directed at him, but was intended to correct an industry problem by allowing modern flatbed trucks to carry the same weight as older trucks that enjoy an exemption.
As a practical matter, said Mothershead, he couldn't stack dry wall high enough to take much advantage of the far greater weight allowance permitted under the bill.
But the House didn't see it that way and the legislation died.
Sometimes legislation starts out as another kind of animal and becomes a snake along the way.
Such is the case, say some legislators, with H.B. 1780, another late arrival that is under review by the Senate after passing the House.
Sponsored by Del. Charles J. Ryan, the chairman of the Prince George's delegation, H.B. 1780 passed the House as a state-wide bill to prohibit the imposition of admission and amusement taxes on free passes and reduced rate admissions in counties that impose the maximum 10 percent tax under state law.
The amusement tax bill would have reduced local tax revenues by a total of $130,000 in a total of eight jurisdictions.
But in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Prince George's County Sen. Frank J. Komenda (D) spent the past two days amending the bill so it affects only his home county.
As a matter of fact, according to the state comptroller's office, the amended bill would be particularly limited in scope. Wild World, the amusement park in Largo, would be the primary beneficiary, receiving a majority of the $77,300 tax break now included in the bill.
The amendments may have doomed the bill's prospects. When asked about the bill today, Komenda said, "The likelihood of this going anywhere is zilch."
H.B. 1730 doesn't fit anyone's definition of a snake, but what happened to it in the Senate Finance Committee was definitely snaky, according to some legislators.
Introduced on behalf of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund (MAIF), a state agency that serves as the insurer of last resort for state motorists, H.B. 1730 was designed to correct an anomaly caused by a 1977 law exempting taxicabs from carrying personal injury protection insurance.
A court suit brought by a Baltimore cab company argued that the 1977 law also exempted cabs from carrying uninsured motorist insurance, which all motorists who are insured carry to protect them from accidents involving other drivers without insurance.
H.B. 1730 would have specifically required cabs and buses to carry uninsured motorist insurance, thereby clarifying the earlier law and protecting against the lawsuit, which the cab company had won and which was pending before the state's highest appeals court.
Vincent H. Howley, executive director of MAIF, said H.B. 1730 was needed to guard against an unfavorable ruling by the Court of Appeals. If the court ruled against MAIF, and the legislature failed to enact the bill, Howley estimated the agency would have to pay about $3.4 million yearly. That excess would be passed along to all Maryland motorists in the MAIF assessment on insurance policy premiums.
Last Tuesday, under heavy lobbying from the taxicab industry, the Senate Finance Committee killed the bill. The very next day, the Court of Appeals ruled against MAIF.
Del. Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's) defines a snake this way: "A bill where the hidden meaning is disguised in a forest of verbiage, a bill that does something to or for someone that is not evident to the general public."
The definition, Devlin said, does not apply to his own bill to extend a 3-cent per gallon tax credit for gasohol, because the bill's intent is clear and has been openly lobbied as a $4 million tax break for Crown Central Petroleum and a gasohol marketer known as Raj Marketing, a Maryland subsidiary of a New Jersey company.
A bevy of lobbyists has been pushing the gasohol bill, touting it as a potential boon to economic development and a benefit to farmers. But the state Department of Transportation, which would lose $4 million, and the Montgomery County Council, which fears a loss of roads money, paint it as a boondoggle for Crown Central Petroleum.
Although the bill's prospects look dim in the Senate, the gasohol bill passed the House tonight. The combination of Crown and Raj's lobbyists is a powerful one, noted Montgomery County Council lobbyist Victor L. Crawford. Crown's chairman, Henry Rosenberg, is a longtime political supporter of Gov. Harry Hughes. And Raj has hired, among others, lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who has a way of getting things done in Annapolis.
"You talk about a snake," said Crawford. "This is $4 million for Henry Rosenberg."
Del. Mary Boergers (D-Montgomery), who supports the bill, disagreed. "Snake is the wrong term," she said. "It's a red-headed Eskimo," legislative parlance for a narrowly constructed bill that applies to only one person or company.