April 1, 2011

Blog: In the mother of all backrooms, budget conference gets underway

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House-Senate conference committee meets on budget Thursday.

Of all the backrooms in Annapolis where deals on legislation are struck, Room 111 at the back of the Legislative Services Building may be the mother of all backrooms.

For some years now, this room is where the pseudo-public conference committee meets to hash out the differences between the House and Senate over the state budget.

This is the backroom where on a Sunday afternoon in November 2007, the senators on a conference committee shoved down the throats of the conferees of the House of Delegates the infamous “tech tax.” This sales tax on computer services was repealed a few months later when it became apparent it would devastate Maryland’s huge IT and informatics industry servicing government and contractors.

As yesterday’s photo shows, Room 111 is fairly large conference room, but when you shove about 50 people into it, it becomes hot and cramped. Ostensibly a public meeting, the only people you see in the photo are legislators, their staffs and O’Malley administration representatives at the rear. The eight senators are on the right side of the table, with Sen. Ed DeGrange the center of attention as he faces the delegates on the left. Out of the frame in the foreground are the reporters sitting on the floor or standing. The chairs are reserved for people who get a government paycheck.

Lobbyists of any persuasion are unofficially but strongly discouraged from attending. Representatives of most people with a stake in how the budget turns out – state employees, university faculty, county governments, municipalities, hospitals, nursing homes — are not in the room. Where would they sit, anyway?

Taxpayers who pay the bills and might like to attend are slightly discouraged by the fact that they don’t know where the conference committee will meet and when. If they knew, once cleared though security with a government-issued ID, they would have to pass the signs that say “Authorized personnel only.”  And this Saturday, when the conference committee might actually get down to deciding many of the major issues the conferees put on hold, the doors of the Legislative Services Building will likely be locked, as they have been in the past, with access granted usually to people with official state government IDs, not just average Joes and Janes with driver’s licenses. Tea Partiers and progressives have the same non-access.

The senators and delegates actually did decide a number of minor issues Thursday, artfully rendered in that just-the-facts Associated Press style by State House correspondent Brian Witte.

–Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com