Maryland's Senate president has vowed to block efforts by gay rights advocates to circumvent a conservative committee in hopes of winning passage of legislation to prohibit state-funded groups from discriminating against gay people.
When a broader anti-discrimination bill was proposed last year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said he would support it on the Senate floor, but the legislation died in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Now gay rights advocates are plotting a political bypass--crafting the bill as a fiscal measure so that it gets assigned to a different, more liberal Senate committee, one that would be more likely to forward it to the full Senate.
"Not gonna happen," said Miller, who decides which committee will hear the legislation. "In light of the opposition to this last year, I don't think it would be valuable to go through this again."
Miller's remarks came as a Montgomery County senator was finishing plans to introduce a scaled-down version of last year's bill. The new measure would not prohibit all discrimination against gay people but would outlaw bias from any group that receives state money.
"This bill is going to be clear from the way it's drafted that it's linked to grants made by the state," said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery). "Making it a state funding bill is a totally different approach, narrower in scope than legislation of the past."
Bills are traditionally directed to committee based on their subject matter. So by drafting the measure as either a fiscal or state policy matter, Van Hollen hoped that Miller would be obliged to send it to the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, where he is vice chairman, or the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, another panel that is traditionally more liberal.
Last year's more comprehensive gay rights proposal passed in the House of Delegates, and many lawmakers believe it would win approval in a vote of the full Senate.
But without Miller's support up front, any new effort is almost certain to fail. The Senate president is not bound by tradition, and he alone dictates which committee will handle a given bill.
Miller said his motivation for bottling up an effort this year is simply a matter of practicality. He said he worries that emotional fights over such issues as gay rights and abortion could paralyze the Senate. Legislators will barely have time, in the span of a 90-day session, to tackle a proposal on gun safety and sort out how to spend a $940 million surplus and a $4.4 billion tobacco settlement, he said.
"We need to stay focused on the things that need to be done," he said. "This money is going to be dominating our thoughts."
Van Hollen said he understands that senators have "a lot on our plates."
"But this is a pressing issue that has to be given the chance to be debated and addressed," he said.
The District of Columbia bans discrimination based on sexual orientation; Virginia does not. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) personally lobbied for the protection last year, helping legislation pass in the House. At the time, Glendening appealed to lawmakers to help end the kind of discrimination his brother felt before he died from AIDS complications.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) said that when Glendening announced that guns, not gay rights, would be his priority for the 2000 session, he knew immediately the gay community was going to need a new strategy.
Rosenberg, Van Hollen and a small group of legislators and lobbyists spent the summer developing a plan. They decided to follow an approach that, in 1994, had succeeded in getting an assault weapons ban passed, despite opposition from the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
By drafting the bill to avoid Judicial Proceedings, the gun bill won passage in another committee and was ultimately voted into law.
"We're going to have a continuing dialogue with the president of the Senate," Van Hollen said. "The bill has not been put in yet, so there's plenty of opportunity to sit down with Senator Miller to discuss the best way to handle this bill."
CAPTION: Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. worries that emotional fights could paralyze the Senate.