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Pipkin proposes new rules for mega-hearings

The fallout from last week's Senate hearing on Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun legislation continued this week with a proposal from the Senate minority leader intended to make sure everyone who wants to testify on a high-profile bill can.

Sen. E. J. Pipkin of the Upper Shore offered the new rule after many witnesses were not permitted to testify as the nine-hour marathon dragged into the night. Several thousand gun rights advocates responding to robocalls had flooded Annapolis for a rally and the hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, jamming Lawyers Mall and crowding the Miller Senate Office Building as they lined up for hours to get into the hearing room.

At the beginning of the hearing, at 1 p.m., committee chairman Sen. Brian E. Frosh told proponents and opponents they would each be allotted four hours to present their sides of the debate. The Montgomery County Democrat then alternated between the sides, giving each roughly an hour before the other side had its turn.

Eight hours later, just as he said he would, Frosh decided to wind up the testimony -- even though there were many witnesses who still wanted to be heard. He did permit those who were still waiting to testify to state their names and whether they were for or against the bill -- a process that took another hour before the committee wound up about 10 p.m.

With opponents outnumbering supporters of the bill by a wide margin, gun rights supporters were apparently a majority of the unhappy would-be witnesses. Some Republican legislators cried foul because they could not testify fully.

The rule Pipkin proposed Monday night would let the Senate president, either on his own or at the request of two members, label as bill as one of "extraordinary public interest" and allow witnesses to sign up using the General Assembly website rather than in person in Annapolis.

Under the rule, in such circumstances, the committee chairman would be required to arrange a "alternate venue" -- presumably a bigger hall somewhere in Annapolis -- and allot enough time so all witnesses can testify.

The bill was referred to the Senate Rules Committee, which is expected to take it up Wednesday.

One of the obstacles to the rule could be logistical. None of the rooms in the State House complex set up to hold hearings is large enough to accommodate the outpouring that occurred last week. That could raise the question of whether a chairman would have to rent a hall off-site at General Assembly expense.

Meanwhile, allowing web sign-up would also likely exacerbate the problem of witnesses not being there when their names are called -- as often happens when people who sign up early in the day get tired of waiting and go home.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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