ANNAPOLIS, MAY 29 -- It sounds like a bingo tournament, looks like picture day at school and feels like the mayhem of college enrollment.
In the span of 90 minutes today, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the top leaders of the Maryland General Assembly signed 303 bills passed in the recent legislative session. They posed for 138 photographs with upwards of 500 assorted lawmakers, lobbyists and just plain folks who wanted to be historically attached to the passage of some law or other.
"What looks like a chaotic nightmare is really organized," said Lainy M. Lebow, director of scheduling and public relations for the governor and the chief ringmaster of these four-times-a-year extravaganzas.
Little is left to chance. Anyone who wants to be in a keepsake picture as the governor signs bills must: (a) sign up on the first floor of the State House and address a mailing envelope; (b) wait for Gerald Walls to call out the order of bills to be signed; (c) be ushered by a volunteer upstairs to the second-floor formal reception room; (d) wait behind the rope until Lebow calls out the bill number on the microphone; (e) line up behind Schaefer so photographer Rick Lippenholz can snap the group shot; and (f) be quickly ushered to the "out" lane.
The photograph will be mailed, free.
Del. Gary R. Alexander (D-Prince George's) showed up today with a group of residents who helped push through a bill giving state bond money to Harmony Hall, a regional arts center in his district. "This recognizes people who worked hard and wrote letters," Alexander said.
George Williams, making his way up the marble staircase with the aid of an umbrella-turned-cane, said he wanted a photograph with the governor to commemorate House Bill 60, which controls the sale of supplemental health insurance to senior citizens.
Legislators loll about in the reception room waiting for their bills to be called, ducking in and out of photographs between conversations.
Some participants also make several trips through the line. The ubiquitous Louise Beauregard of Annapolis, a self-styled civic activist, lines up for repeated group shots.
In the assembly line, Schaefer (D) sits happily between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent), scrawling his name and fighting off writer's cramp as the bills whisk past.
Amid the din and posing, he sings an unidentified song, emphasizing the lyrics "smile awhile."
Jennifer Riggio, an aide who has watched and helped organize bill-signing ceremonies through three gubernatorial administrations, considers crowd control the biggest challenge. "In the past, it was a mob scene," Riggio said.
Then there are the special requests, often from legislators, to move up specific bills in the signing order.
"They'll say, 'If you take my picture, I'll get out of your hair,' " she said.
Riggio has a secret, too: "There's a myth that he's signing the bill that's on the plaque in front of him for the picture." Actually, the bills just come whizzing by and are signed in a steady flow.
By nearly all accounts, the bill-signing ceremonies are more orderly -- and brief -- than in past administrations.
"It used to be a zoo," said one senator.
Alexander agreed, "They're better organized than in previous years."
Lebow makes the trains run on time. "What used to take three hours today took one-and-a-half or less," she said.