Senate Republicans Rule?

    A pair of proposals from the Maryland Senate’s minority party to amend the chamber’s rules are moving forward.

    The Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously to support changes that would clarify when members can be shuffled between committees and who has possession of a bill after it’s voted on by a committee.

    Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore), who are both members of the Rules Committee, presented the amendments Tuesday morning.

    The first change, to Rule 17, would clarify that once committee membership rosters are set for the 90-day legislative session, they will not change unless there is a vacancy in the chamber.

    Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s), chairwoman of the Rules Committee, asked what happens if there are personality clashes or other issues between committee members that could arise mid-session.

    “Does this amendment say that the chair has to continue with this person that is wreaking havoc?” Benson asked.

    “Yes,” Hershey responded. “I would suggest that the chair and that member would have to be able to work out their problems and be able to work together.”

    The Senate president would retain the power to reshuffle committees between legislative sessions under the rule.

    If a member is removed from committee assignments but does not leave the office of state senator, that person’s role on their assigned committee would remain vacant unless or until there is an actual vacancy in the chamber.

    Last year, former senator Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore City) was removed from his committee assignments in February before resigning in late March just before pleading guilty to federal bribery charges. Former senator Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore City) was absent during the second half of the 2016 General Assembly session because of worsening multiple sclerosis, at which time members were shuffled mid-session.

    While Jennings said there have been no concerns with committee assignments in the past, the recent issues have brought to light that committee reassignments could be used in a more nefarious way without the changes to the rule, Jennings said.

    “Please note, the Senate president has never done that. This has nothing to do with the current president,” Jennings said. “We just saw a loophole that we’d like to fix to make sure we never have a problem.”

    The second proposed change is to Rule 41, which would make clear that the Senate chamber has “possession” of a bill once it is voted on by the assigned standing committee. In a somewhat anachronistic tradition, the Senate chamber is unable to act on legislation unless it is in possession of the physical paper bill.

    During last year’s session, a measure that would have established “safe spaces” where people could use illicit drugs at locations that provide medical assistance, sterile needles and other services, was lost in the ether for a period of time. The bill passed out of the Senate Finance Committee favorable with amendments on Feb. 14 before the committee held a reconsideration vote a week later that ended with an unfavorable report.

    “There was questions about who had possession,” Jennings said.

    The new rule would clarify that once a bill or resolution leaves committee, it becomes property of the Senate.

    Jennings characterized the changes as “good government cleanup” measures.

    Earlier this session, the Senate also passed a rule change that shifted local bond requests to a new system of filing. Such requests are no longer processed as individual bills, which saves staff time and effort, and are logged with Legislative Bond Initiative numbers. The change also will mean that the House and Senate can hold joint hearings on the bond initiatives later this session.

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    Danielle E. Gaines
    Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.