Carroll County Times

Afternoons in Annapolis are democracy in (messy) action

People hurry to committee hearings as politicians are interviewed by TV reporters in the marble hallways of the Lowe House Office Building. Afternoons here are loud and crowded and reveal democracy in action.
If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
- Aristotle

Teachers alike arrive early wearing buttons for collective bargaining. Union workers walk up in their "Unite Here" T-shirts. Winemakers are inside - as are librarians, bikers with Harley-Davidson jackets and ZZ Top beards, and well-heeled and high-heeled lobbyists.

In the afternoons they come, a chorus of voices to speak up in democracy, 1,000 people or more.


They want rights to unionize. They want higher wages and more books. They want to ride a Harley without a helmet. That want a safer, better world.

Seven committees meet here most weekdays, and the fate of most state bills is decided in these long afternoons in the House of Delegates building.


It's often tedious.

Sometimes, it's heartbreaking. Parents speak of teenage children killed, wanting laws to save others.

Sometimes, it feels futile. Of 2,610 bills introduced last session, nearly three-quarters failed.

Still, they come.

Inside the Lowe House Office Building one recent afternoon, a man watches the screen flash with committee agendas.

"You know where Economic Matters is?" he asks.

The screen flashes the committee's bills this afternoon ... HB 676 ... HB 723 ... HB 735.

It's 1 p.m.


The sharing begins.


"Les, you look bored," Jack Neil says.

Leslie Knapp Jr. answers with a grin.

Knapp is a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Counties.

Neil lobbies for companies that install geothermal-heating systems.


"What are you doing?" Knapp asks.

"Just birddogging," Neil answers.

He's picking out lobbyists in the hallway.

"Over there, sitting down, you got one, two, three, four, five."

They must still be building "session legs," Neil says.

He turns to Knapp.


"What you think, seven miles a day?"

Knapp nods.

"Seven miles a day," Neil says, "walking back and forth. Time is always of the essence."

They talk in the hallway where the screen flashes ... HB 815 ... HB 867 ... HB 890.

The 2012 regular session saw 2,580 bills introduced. Only 730 passed.

The 2011 regular session saw 2,353 bills introduced. Only 625 passed.


"It's a crowded field," Neil says.

He points to another man in a suit.

"Oh, pinstripes. That's a lobbyist."


Each year, hundreds of bills pass and fail without the public knowing - there are too many to monitor, or to count.

Most folks remember last year's bill that banned certain assault weapons. Most folks never learned lawmakers considered repealing the prohibition of unicycling on sidewalks.


Also last year, tax credits passed for adopting dogs or cats.

Some bills incite rallies and promise sweeping change.

Others affect a few.

The 2012 session saw stormwater fees, same-sex marriage - and a law requiring that funeral parlors keep bodies in "decent refrigeration."

The synthetic drug Mephedrone (street name: "Meow, Meow") was outlawed that year.

The 2011 session saw a law requiring people register before transporting kitchen grease.


Hundreds of new laws a year may seem a sign of growing government. But the General Assembly worked in the weeds about a century ago.

The 1916 General Assembly passed more than 600 bills, including a prohibition on fortunetelling in Baltimore County (palm readers unite!) and a law encouraging beekeeping.

Those days, the General Assembly met every other year. It passed laws that today would fall to cities and counties, such as a 1924 prohibition on young boys playing in Carroll County bowling alleys.

Also in 1924: a law requiring soda-pop bottlers be licensed.

The 1927 session saw more than 700 bills pass, including one requiring licenses for moving-picture machine operators.

Imagine the reaction today if the General Assembly acted, as it did in 1927, to build an Ocean City summer home for the governor.



"What did you learn today?" asks the chaperone.

Students are eating lunch in the lounge of the House building after a tour.

"George Washington was reassigned here," says Ronald Hill, an 11th-grader at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School.

Classmate Agin Hasan interrupts.

"No, he



. He resigned from general here."

In 1783, Washington resigned as commander in chief at the State House, Ronald is reminded.

He continues, unfazed.

"You know this is the oldest state capitol?"

It's the oldest still in legislative use and these students were brought by the Attorney General's Office in Baltimore to witness democracy in action.


Schonette Walker works in the office and pulled her 13-year-old daughter from school in Prince George's County to come along.

"I think I'm still a good mom," she says. "I took her out of school for something educational."

In the hallway, a Severna Park Girl Scout troop passes. Arts advocates assemble from Howard County. More than 1,050 people will enter the House building this day.

Among them is Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, with a pack of aides.

"Is it upstairs or downstairs?" he asks.

An aide guides him by the arm into a committee hearing on expanding pre-kindergarten programs.


A cameraman was waiting at the other entrance for an interview.

"Shoot," the cameraman says, and chases after.


Julie Sugar stares at the screen.

It's 3 p.m. and the bills flash before her ... HB 363 ... HB 384 ... HB 444.

"We're still not up."


Sugar and others from Baltimore County want elected members on their school board.

"Somebody with us had to move her car because it's two-hour parking," she says.

This is the third year they've come.

"I'll do it as long as it takes."

In the committee rooms, folks keep coming and going ... "Hi, how are you?" ... "What you here for?" ... "I think that's downstairs."

They've come for change. They're striving to be heard above the noise: 1,000 visitors some days.


Amid it all, screens flash with the urgency of democracy: 90 days a session, 2,500 bills or more ... HB 473 ... HB 595 ... HB 762 ... HB 1008 ... HB 1071.