A glimpse at the sometimes-curious legislative ways of Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

The drama associated with the final voting session of the county's General Assembly delegation last week occurred mostly behind the scenes.

And it came in the form of legislators' handling of two minor measures. In the end, both perished, but the episode seemed to provide a glimpse at the sometimes-curious ways of business in Annapolis.

Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman said he rejected what he viewed as an offer from Ned Cheston, the Ulman administration's General Assembly lobbyist, to save one of the senator's measures in exchange for him changing his vote and supporting an unpopular administration bill.

Cheston saw it otherwise, saying he was "feeling out" Kittleman, but told him he had not talked to County Executive Ken Ulman about the issue and did not consider it vote-trading.

Kittleman's bill would have given the county the authority to lower utility taxes for residents who get public water but not public sewer service. It failed last year and was again opposed by administration officials this year. But in an odd twist, the delegation approved it Feb. 11 without opposition.

In another twist, Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner asked Wednesday that the bill be reconsidered. This time, four delegates voted against the measure, killing it.

Even the delegation leaders say they still are not sure how that sequence of events came to pass.

Turner and Del. Guy Guzzone said the Feb. 11 vote had confused members, and both said they knew nothing of Cheston's conversation with Kittleman. Guzzone had abstained on the bill in that first vote, as did Del. Shane Pendergrass.

But Wednesday, four Democratic delegates - Guzzone, Turner, Elizabeth Bobo and Pendergrass - voted to kill the measure, denying it a required majority among the eight delegates. Kittleman was not present for the votes.

Meanwhile, the Ulman bill, which sought to save an estimated $220,000 by shifting work from the independent, county-funded Soil Conservation District office in Woodbine to county planners, was withdrawn for lack of support.

"I was certainly disappointed by the House of Delegates' decision, but I don't trade votes," Kittleman said.

Cheston acknowledged he told Kittleman that his utility tax bill likely would be reconsidered, and asked whether the senator would consider changing his position to support Ulman's soil conservation bill.

"Perhaps we would hold off trying to kill his bill," Cheston said. "I wasn't offering anything. I was feeling him out."

In other action, the legislators voted, 8-1, to approve a bill that would require applicants for zoning regulation amendments to disclose political contributions to elected county officials.

Healthy Howard

The Healthy Howard program for uninsured county residents drew praise at a public hearing Tuesday by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. John Sarbanes. The meeting was held at Howard Community College's offices at the county's Gateway Building.

Mikulski said members of Congress intent on reforming health care are looking for innovative ideas like Howard's program. They came to Columbia to hear testimony from two women who applied for help from the Howard program. They also heard from the county health officer, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, and Claudia Page, whose nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., developed the electronic application process that has enabled the program to find health insurance for uninsured residents.

Beilenson said that about 1,200 children have enrolled in the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program because of Healthy Howard's efforts. In addition, about 1,400 uninsured adults have learned that they are eligible for insurance, and 249 more people are being enrolled in Healthy Howard itself.

Ulman noted that he has received criticism for spending taxpayer money on the program, though his chief critic, County Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, was on a business trip to Israel and was not available to comment on the hearing.

Frances Tucci-Farley testified that she was involved in an auto accident in June that aggravated a nerve problem from earlier back surgery. Then she lost her job and said she spent months waiting vainly for traditional help before hearing about the Healthy Howard health-access plan.

"I checked off the days when I could stand on that line," she said of the start of enrollment Oct. 9.

But that same day, her 6-year-old son's father was found dead, leaving the boy without health insurance. That evening, traumatized and fearful, she stood in line at a Columbia library and began getting the encouragement she needed.

"The atmosphere was hopeful," she said, and enrollment was swift, a sharp contrast to the depressing time she had spent months earlier at county social services waiting to fill out six different paper forms. At Healthy Howard, she learned that she and her son both qualified for state medical insurance programs.

Tucci-Farley and Van Lynn Wensil, who qualified for Healthy Howard after more than six years without insurance, said the program has helped them greatly. Wensil, divorced after 33 years of marriage, also lost a job and paid $648 a month under COBRA insurance before it expired. Then she was denied coverage repeatedly because of a pre-existing chronic illnesses. She, too, applied the first day Healthy Howard was available and is now getting care.

"I felt like I won the lottery the day I was accepted," she said.

Mikulski said it is worth considering whether the Howard example could have value at the federal level.

"What elements could be implemented nationally? What are the pitfalls?" the senator said. "It's incredibly important for people to know your stories."

Mikulski and Sarbanes commended Ulman and Beilenson for making the effort to help the uninsured, and they expressed awe at how many people are eligible for existing insurance but don't know it.

"If that's all you accomplished, it would have been a terrific success," Sarbanes said, referring to people who learned they already qualified for programs they knew nothing about.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad