Peeved politicians offer up payback

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Say you're a lawmaker from the farthest western reaches of the state, the heavily forested, largely rural Garrett County.

And say a good many of the folks you represent revel in their newly won ability to hunt black bears, which they view largely as furry nuisances forever wandering out of those woods to paw through garbage cans.

And then a buttinsky delegate from some big-city district up and proposes a bear hunting ban.

What's a politician like Del. George C. Edwards to do?

He files a payback bill.

In the General Assembly, where yelling, stomping, swearing and spitting are sternly discouraged by stiff rules of decorum, the indignant legislator has few avenues to release his pique, his rage ... his revenge.

The route brazenly traveled by many a peeved politician is to answer the offending legislation with a craftily devised bill of his own - a little bud of law planted only to make a point.

In Edwards' case, while steaming over Democratic Del. Barbara Frush's proposed hunting ban, it came to him:

A law that would spread the joy of bears throughout Maryland.

Bring them from the west to every last jurisdiction in the state - from the chi-chi suburbs of Montgomery County to Baltimore City's rowhoused streets to, of course, Frush's own Prince George's County backyard.

"If people down there like bears so much," he explains, "let's trap 'em and move them to other parts of the state."

Edwards' bill has gone nowhere - for two years running. And he really doesn't care. Getting the thing passed was hardly his goal.

"I'm trying to make the point that the people who put bills in for someone else's area, they don't live with bears, they don't understand the situation," the House Republican leader says. "They think they are cuddly and cute with names like Fuzzy and Boo-Boo."

Edwards is only the latest Maryland lawmaker to serve up revenge on a legislative platter.

General Assembly history is rich with colorful examples of this tactic, spurned senators and disdainful delegates threatening everything from freezing development to inviting tawdry liquor establishments into the district of a nemesis to flat-out secession from the state.

Just last week, payback emerged in a bill to require the Cabinet secretaries of second-term governors to win Senate confirmation all over again. Retribution against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, whom Democrats accuse of sitting on their road repair dollars? Republicans say absolutely.

A classic case erupted in the late 1970s.

Del. Frederick C. Rummage from Prince George's County introduced a bill that would have created a commission to study the feasibility of gambling. It would also have converted Ocean City into "a center for legalized gambling."

Russell O. Hickman, the appalled delegate representing that intended coastal gambling destination, responded by introducing a bill that would have created a commission to study the feasibility of legalizing prostitution - and convert Rummage's county into "a center for legalized prostitution."

"It's one of the great ones," marvels longtime Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.

Like a spaghetti Western standoff, the political gunfighters agreed to lay down their weapons, each holstering his bill.

About 10 years ago, Sen. Walter M. Baker, a conservative and crusty Democrat from Cecil County, became increasingly incensed watching the General Assembly pass what - from his perspective - looked like one liberal bill after another.

So he put together a proposal to allow the Eastern Shore to secede from Maryland.

According to a Sun article at the time, Baker was feeling oh-so-vengeful as he drafted his legislation.

He bluntly told the newspaper that he did it "primarily to make clear to the rest of the state that the Eastern Shore is displeased with much of what the legislature has done this year." Namely, approving both a gun-control bill and a needle-exchange program in Baltimore.

But Baker's colleagues rained on his parade by blocking the bill's introduction. Perhaps he took solace in the 15 votes backing him up, even as others shouted, "Let them go."

Winding the clock back about 10 more years, Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., an Eastern Shore power broker, jauntily dropped a spite bill in response to passage of a law to restrict development on environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay land.

He wanted to make the restrictions apply statewide, a move that in one fell swoop would have effectively brought new construction to a stop in Maryland's most growth-oriented regions.

"It teed him off because the whole state was messing around with the Eastern Shore," recalls Laurence Levitan, a former senator from Montgomery County who's now a prominent lobbyist. "It would have basically stopped development in Howard and Montgomery - pretty much all of the urban areas of the state."

Though Malkus introduced the bill twice - and both years it passed in the Senate - it died each time in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"That was one of the most recognizable examples of putting in a bill to get even, so to speak," Levitan says, adding that there's nothing wrong with a little payback bill now and again. "You gotta have some levity - 90 days down here ... it gets frustrating."

This year, history almost repeated itself when another Eastern Shore senator accused a colleague of environmental meddling.

In a volatile outburst on the Senate floor, Dorchester County Republican Richard F. Colburn verbally slapped around Baltimore County Democrat James Brochin, the sponsor of an environmental protection bill with the power to ruin a billion-dollar development in Colburn's district.

As Colburn raged about the evaporation of local courtesy, he fired a warning shot Brochin's way: "I'm telling myself not to take it personally, but maybe I'll just put a few liquor bills in for Towson or something like that."

That potential payback never materialized. It never had to - the Senate killed Brochin's bill Friday.

Sometimes spite is spotted in legislation where it might not exist. Like with this year's bill to create a state Commission for Men, which was introduced, interestingly enough, not long after some skeptical back and forth among lawmakers about the necessity of Maryland's Commission for Women.

Even though many senators had big smirks on their faces when the bill was debated this month, sponsors of the legislation in both chambers swear it's a legitimate proposal, written with nothing more snide in mind than the health of Maryland's men.

As for the bears, Frush is half-amused, half-disgusted with Edwards' reaction to her desire to ban the hunt.

On the one hand, she's fond of asking him, "Where are my bears?" On the other, she thinks his introducing what amounts to a wisecrack is a waste.

It costs $2,500 to file a bill in Maryland, she scolds. To say nothing of the valuable time people spend at hearings supposedly considering said bill.

"I believe while he was trying to be a smart aleck, the fact is, it only costs the people of Maryland a good deal of money," she says. "To make a point, he could have testified at my hearing for free."

At the recent hearing for Edwards' bill, Frush reciprocated with a little payback of her own - she walked out.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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