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Strategic political moves lead to productive, progressive legislative session

ANNAPOLIS — With legislation to subsidize the development of offshore wind energy locked in a Senate committee for the past two years, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. moved decisively in January to guarantee the bill’s advancement.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, is showered by paper confetti and balloons on Monday as the General Assembly adjourns following what leaders called the most productive session in recent memory.

Out from the committee was Sen. C. Anthony Muse, who refused to vote for the complicated bill in 2012. In was Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, another Prince George’s County Democrat who said at the time that he had an open mind.

When Ramirez feigned indecision on how to vote when the panel finally made its decision on House Bill 226 in February, lawmakers couldn’t help but laugh. The reason for the senator’s reassignment was no secret, and, on the offshore wind bill’s third try, it cleared the Finance Committee and ultimately the Senate.

Ramirez’s move was an early indication that the legislature was ready to work through what House Speaker Michael E. Busch later called a “collaborative and cooperative” 90 days in Annapolis, a session marked by timely, strategic maneuvers that resulted in the passage of Democrats’ top legislative initiatives, including Gov. Martin O’Malley’s entire agenda.

“You want to take your time, every little bit counts here” Ramirez said in a recent interview. “We can’t let one legislator stop the process. … We see what’s going on on Capitol Hill. Our job is to work together and make the state move forward.”

Nothing like 2012

Lawmakers were not working together in 2012. Stacks of bills favored by Democratic leaders — including the offshore wind bill, new rules for public-private partnerships and creation of a new transportation revenue stream — were trashed after a messy midnight adjournment that left a budget agreement in tatters.

A deeply divisive gambling bill helped shred that accord, which had been reached by Senate and House leaders in the final hours of the 2012 legislative session. It was not until a May special session that lawmakers took a final vote on the budget package, and another special session was held in August to finally put gambling expansion in the lawmakers’ “done” pile.

Several state elected officials described 2012 as embarrassing, but it set off a series of strategic moves that ultimately turned the slow-starting 2013 legislative session into the most productive in memory. Some Democrats were hesitant to describe the session as a measured game of strategy. Onlookers, however, disagreed.

Almost every move in the chess game that was the 90-day session worked to advance the Democratic leadership’s agenda.

“You almost have to think it had to be,” said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Think about how last year’s session ended, just a complete calamity. It looked as if the two chambers weren’t communicating or coordinating. … And you had two special sessions just to conclude all the work.

“This year’s session had to go smoothly. It couldn’t afford to give the slightest appearance of last year’s incompetence.”

With the issues surrounding the size and regulation of the gambling industry resolved — minus a few tweaks — the legislature had plenty of time to size up other controversial bills while also striking a budget agreement with days, rather than hours, remaining in the session. The process, which ground to a halt at the end of 2012, was moving unencumbered for most of 2013.

Death penalty repeal

For years, multiple lawmakers had stopped the process on another O’Malley wish-list item: repeal of the death penalty. Several legislators — including two Baltimore Democrats, Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg — had been behind repeal efforts for years as influential members of the legislature’s judicial committees.

This year, with the help of timely lobbying by Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and an effective campaign by O’Malley to describe the death penalty as costly and ineffective, a repeal bill appeared likely to receive serious consideration by the legislature.

So on the first day of session, Busch moved Rosenberg — the House’s foremost supporter of repeal — back to the Judiciary Committee, where the Baltimore Democrat predicted before session there would be enough votes to force debate and a final vote by the full House.

Extra votes were picked up along the way, but Rosenberg said his return to the Judiciary Committee after two years as vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was a key move toward passage.

“When I moved to the Judiciary Committee, I was the 12th vote needed to get the bill out of committee,” Rosenberg said. But the wheels of repeal started to turn three years ago, when elections replaced several members of the Senate, where there had been more reluctance to do away with capital punishment.

After the Senate voted 27-20 for repeal, Rosenberg guided the House through hours of debate in March, reaching from the committee room to the chamber and a final, 82-56 vote that came seven years after lawmakers began the push.

Transportation funding

Rosenberg’s reassignment to the Judiciary Committee left a leadership hole on Ways and Means, the House panel whose chairwoman — Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat — warned in January to be prepared to deal with comprehensive transportation funding legislation at some point before April 8.

“Whatever you’re hearing is not off the table,” Hixson told the committee, after announcing that Del. Frank S. Turner — the lawmaker who guided gambling expansion legislation through a reluctant House in August — would move from chair of the finance resources subcommittee to vice chairman of the powerful tax committee.

Turner, a trusted negotiator for the House speaker, would again take up highly controversial legislation when in March the House rewrote and advanced an O’Malley plan to raise gas taxes and transit fares to infuse money into the soon-to-be bereft Transportation Trust Fund. Turner, a Howard County Democrat, was anticipating that debate from January on.

“If you look at what happened last year, the transportation bill was in the vice chair’s committee,” Turner said. “I enjoy riding the lone horse bill.”

Turner, who helped craft the compromise gambling legislation that ultimately passed by a bare majority — 71 votes — in the House, was instrumental in rewriting the transportation revenue bill this year to gain the support of 76 delegates in the chamber.

Turner said it was hard to compare the transportation bill to the gambling bill because the gambling bill was ultimately approved in a special session, when other legislation was not floating around as a potential bargaining chip. But Turner said his strategy was the same.

“I try to just study the bill and make sure I understand every aspect of it,” he said. “I’d rather be proactive than reactive.”

Blue Maryland

Scores of other measures were also passed by the legislature, including comprehensive gun-control reform, new procurement rules for public-private partnerships, numerous tax credits and some election reforms.

When it was over on Tuesday morning, O’Malley’s legislative agenda passed and numerous other Democratic bills were also soon to become law.

Miller, the Senate’s president for the last 27 years, said the Democratic supermajority in the legislature worked together in 2013 to do the work that the population of Maryland apparently favors. The Republican Party’s voice in Annapolis has been reduced to a whisper as the majority of Maryland has dyed itself an ever-deeper blue.

“What has changed … is the demographics of the state,” Miller said. “When I became president of the Senate there [were] these very conservative Democrats, more conservative than any of my Republican members are today.

“They’re gone. Just as moderates in the Republican areas are gone.”

In the face of an electoral primary next summer and statewide election in November 2014, Eberly, the St. Mary’s political science professor, had expected Democrats to avoid some of the high-profile issues that were met with more “yeas” than “nays” in 2013. But, emboldened by a 2012 election where several Democratic priorities were upheld by voters, O’Malley and the legislature took the opposite approach.

“I think the calculus inside the Democratic caucus is that the state has become more progressive, and because of that, they would be punished more for taking it easy [in 2013],” Eberly said. “They saw they had to be efficient … so as not to have angry voters in a primary possibly throw them out for a more progressive Democrat.”

So legislative leaders and O’Malley’s office got on the same page early and — with few hiccups along the way — stuck to the script.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and the House speaker for the past 11 years, said the session was so productive that major issues — including the offshore wind and public-private partnership bills — felt like they flew under the radar. Miller went a step further just after balloons and confetti dropped from his chamber’s second-floor gallery after adjournment.

“I can only remember one, maybe two sessions at the most that [were] as productive as this,” the Calvert County Democrat said.

But with just days left in the annual meeting of lawmakers, Rosenberg — himself a member of the legislature for 30 years — balked at describing 2013 as an easy ride.

“Well, it looks smooth at the end,” he said.