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OCCASIONALLY even a callous observer of government...


OCCASIONALLY even a callous observer of government has a twinge of sympathy for state legislators.

Most people think members of the General Assembly spend their mornings debating and voting on laws in the stately Senate and House chambers. Then they repair in the evenings to Annapolis' watering holes to party, with lobbyists picking up the tabs. But what of the afternoons in between?

That's when the legislators hold hearings on the thousands of bills and resolutions filed in the 90-day session, which is a little more than half over. That's when the real legislating gets done, by and large. Some days, however, the process resembles cruel and unusual punishment -- for the legislators.

Take a recent session of the House Environmental Matters Committee. It heard testimony on 14 bills dealing in one way or another with health issues. More than seven hours of non-stop testimony, from well over 100 witnesses.

(Actually there were 155 people signed up to testify, but some of the witnesses appeared again and again and again, while others couldn't hold out past the five-hour mark. When they failed to respond after being called, Chairman Ronald A. Guns, an Upper Shore Democrat, said fervently, "Thank you.")

Did we say the bills were about health issues? Not exactly. "This bill is about money," candidly testified one lobbyist. At bottom, so were they all -- who gets regulated by whom, who pays for it, who charges $350 for a procedure someone else bills at $1,100, who really bears the cost of treating the indigent, why dentists and podiatrists should be treated differently, and so forth.

There was some chatter about the welfare of patients -- some of it undoubtedly sincere -- but the aroma of money, power and relative shares of the pie permeated most of the testimony.

Weighty issues, some of them. But some of the testimony was pretty heavy, too. Like the five doctors who took about a half-hour testifying for a bill that had no opposition. And the lobbyists who persisted, despite Mr. Guns' imploring, to repeat each others' arguments.

As evening approached, one witness confessed to having a "fried brain" by then. Fried or not, the absorptive qualities of the legislators' brains must have surpassed their limits as well.

Those 14 bills were a teacupfull in the ocean of legislation being considered this session. There are already more than 2,200 bills and resolutions pending in both houses.

Not all committee sessions are so arduous, but sitting from 1 p.m. until well past dinner time is not rare. Soon some of the busier committees will start hearings early in the morning, before full meetings of both houses, and others will hold a second set of hearings at night.

They say you should never watch the legislative process or the making of sausage. Sometimes the sausage makers have a right to feel insulted at the analogy.

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