Legislative clash means voters lose


WHAT GOES around comes around. That's all too often true in politics, where one slight affront, one sign of disrespect can come back to haunt the offender. There's a ritual of mutual log-rolling that is sometimes required for effective representation. And a time to put aside token "votes of conscience" where the risks outweigh the potential gain.

While the Carroll County delegation to the General Assembly has regularly expressed its (futile) displeasure with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the Democratic legislative leadership, it has not been openly hostile to the needs of its neighboring counties.

There has been a general acceptance of the fact that each county has its own wish list and that there's little reason to fight those local bills, especially if you don't control the power apparatus, a common situation for Carroll's Republican contingent.

When the Democratic leadership exercises its punitive muscle, as it did in recent years in cutting Carroll's requests for bond money to expand the county Agriculture Center, it has got little to fear from the decidedly minority party. Yes, that's a one-way street.

This month, Carroll almost lost a much bigger bond bill, one for nearly $34 million to finance all its public projects for the coming fiscal year. (By law, the General Assembly has to approve bonds authority for non-charter counties).

The clash of wills and tempers was between the representatives of Carroll and Frederick counties, two jurisdictions that often claim to have much in common and shared interests. In fact, in past years, officials of the two counties occasionally met to discuss legislation and matters of regional concern.

This year's conflict was compounded by the fact that both protagonists represent Frederick County, and both represent dual-county districts.

In one corner stood State Senator Timothy R. Ferguson, Republican from Carroll-Frederick, in the other was Delegate C. Sue Hecht, a Democrat of Frederick-Washington.

Mr. Ferguson refused to support state funds to create a tourism center in Frederick County, so Ms. Hecht then held up the Carroll general funding bond bill in committee.

With neither embattled legislator willing to back down and the session's hourglass nearly empty, Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale worked with Ms. Hecht to engineer a curious compromise, adding the Frederick tourism bond measure to the Carroll bond measure. At a quarter till midnight Monday, the Senate finally passed the amended legislation.

It was appropriate that Delegate Stocksdale, a Carroll Republican, brokered the impasse-breaker. She's widely regarded for her winning personality, even by those who routinely oppose her political stands; she's the leading vote-getter in county elections.

It was also telling that Senator Ferguson was involved in the imbroglio. He has often sought conflict with Democratic legislators, even when there was nothing to be gained. He has been a primary player in the unsettling feuding within the Frederick County delegation this session.

To be sure, Mr. Ferguson insisted that he opposed the tourism center as a waste of money. Support for the idea was not unanimous in Frederick. There was no reason to equate the general bonding authority for Carroll with a $2.4 million bond bill for the center, he explained.

But news reports of Mr. Ferguson's relations with the other Frederick legislators paint a picture of willful indifference. "Are you my mother?" he retorted to a question from Frederick delegation chair Louise V. Snodgrass about the bond bills, then stormed out of the meeting that he later termed a "witch hunt."

It has not been a good session for Mr. Ferguson, especially as his own pique has been his downfall. He was even rebuffed by like-minded senators in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. The committee chair refused to bring to a vote Mr. Ferguson's perennial bill to permit citizens to carry concealed weapons. And when Carroll's senator departed in anger, the committee voted to kill another of his bills, which would bar localities from suing gun manufacturers.

And talk about adding insult to injury -- Mr. Ferguson was then blasted by the gun owners' lobby for abandoning a filibuster attempt on Gov. Parris N. Glendening's landmark gun safety legislation. He was the Republican representative in getting the legislation to the Senate floor for debate, figuring that there were not enough votes to avoid cloture of debate.

Of course, Ms. Hecht's retaliatory action in bottling up the Carroll bill in the House Appropriations Committee did not draw many cheers, either. It bore the marks of the persistent bad blood between Frederick's delegates and senators over the past three months. But it was effective, at least in the short term.

The repercussions will be felt in both counties for some time. With these state legislators in office for nearly three more years, the voters won't have a say until the autumn of 2002.

It's one of the perils of the multi-county legislative district, but one that most legislators work hard to avoid. Usually it's a matter of going along with the consensus in each county's delegation, or exercising political discretion. There's a lesson for those who care to learn.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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