The end is near - let the games begin


GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has implored the General Assembly to refrain from "shenanigans."

He might as well command the sun to rise in the west or to imagine Peter G. Angelos wearing a Washington Nationals cap.

Shenanigans are the legislative crocus - or crab grass, depending on your viewpoint. When the annual 90-day session dwindles to days and hours, the shenanigan pops up in every bit of legislative turf. Makes you know the end is near, however you want to interpret that thought.

At the end of every session, it is said, every bill is connected to every other bill. There's leverage to be had for passing or killing bills - in other words, in every pending bill. Depending upon the bill and your status, you can threaten life or death in exchange for what you want.

Senators and delegates - as excited by a nifty shenanigan as anyone - begin to buzz about how this or that leader has found a way to leverage his or her interest out of the crypt.

Some of the potential connections might seem a stretch: You could argue that the budget bill and the slot machine gambling bill are connected, for example. One provides for the spending of money. The other provides for the fleecing of money.

A little history:

The slot machine initiative appears to be dead - yet again. The House version had been impaled mortally on the horns of the Senate. But among a legislature's sacred powers is everlasting life. If the House speaker and the Senate president want something to happen, and there's still time on the clock, they can find a way. A shenanigan might be the way. In the slots-budget case, if the result were to be a slots success, the governor might see the shenanigan as a pillar of democracy.

Last week, it was whispered, the state's budget was being held up also over differences between the two chambers on slots - or was it a property tax reduction desired by the House? The Senate finds that idea horribly misguided, an embarrassment to the Free State, a threat to world peace. Unless (whispering again) the House would agree to revive slots.

Or perhaps the tactic has nothing to do with slots or the budget or taxes. Perhaps the idea was to slow things down sufficiently to prevent a lengthy discussion of the troublesome stem cell research funding bill. Just talking about issues such as abortion or stem cells can create politically damaging anger in the religious communities - and trouble for solons seeking re-election.

So perhaps it's not the budget or slots or taxes at all. A good shenanigan gets better when there's good cover - a misdirection, they would it call in football: looks like you're going off tackle, but it's an end-around.

Or maybe you don't like the bill that plugs a yawning loophole in the state's transfer tax law. Right now, your average lawyer can help you avoid that tax. Some call it the "dumb tax" because it's a tax you don't have to pay if you "structure" the sale properly. You get it, right? If you don't do the structuring shenanigan, you're dumb. Some in the General Assembly are saying it's dumb to let businesses escape these taxes.

But maybe that's not the real game, either. Maybe the target is Fair Share Health Care, a bill that taxes large businesses that pay too little for health insurance. (It's essential, by the way, to have a name for your bill. Labels such as the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind help because they give the legislation a profile in the process.)

This year's shenanigans include passing bills to force Mr. Ehrlich to use his veto - and identify himself as an enemy of health care, economic security for the poor and, if possible, motherhood. Did we mention there's an election coming?

Here's the real problem with shenanigans. Bills don't pass or fail on their merits. They are reborn or die in the killing vectors of spring, the love of scheming and the onset of sine die, translated from the Latin to mean adjourning finally.

Actually, it means no more shenanigans - this year.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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