- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The discreet sign taped to the closed door of the House committee room doesn’t say much, but it tells the story.

It reads simply: VOTING.

The marker serves as a “Keep Out” sign for lobbyists, paid advocates, staffers for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and, occasionally, residents. They take their cue and wait outside as bills are killed or approved behind closed doors.

“Look at that,” said former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany Democrat and now a lobbyist forced to wait out this part of the legislative process in the hallway. He gestured toward the sign and said jokingly, “Don’t break the seal.”

Maryland’s open-meetings law generally calls for committee voting sessions to be open, and the official policy of the state House and Senate is for them to be open. But lawmakers widely abide by an unwritten rule that calls for clearing the public from committee rooms before votes are taken.

It’s a practice that some lobbyists and lawmakers say serves a purpose: Legislators debate more openly if those with a stake in the bills are not present. But advocates of open government, including other lawmakers, say committee votes are the heart of the action in the legislature and should be open for anyone who wants to observe them.

Of the 2,500 bills introduced last year, 1,500 lapsed or were killed in committees. The fates of many of the 2,650 bills from the session this year are still being decided.

“The committee is like the engine room,” said James Browning, director of Common Cause Maryland, a government-watchdog group. “This is where the action is really happening.”

Without officially closing the sessions, as would be required by the state Open Meetings Act, committee staffers often notify those in the room that the panel is preparing to vote. Or they post a sign outside that sends a clear message.

“By law, the voting sessions are open,” said Sen. Sharon Grosfeld, Montgomery Democrat. “By practice, they tend to be closed.”

It’s up to the panel leaders when to begin deliberating and voting, but lobbyists and Mr. Ehrlich’s aides say the action usually is delayed until they leave the room. Lawmakers say it’s also common practice to put off voting until the general public scatters.

“There are a lot of games that get played,” said Delegate Donald Dwyer, an Anne Arundel Republican and a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The tradition in the Maryland state Capitol is long-standing.

“When I was a chairman, I would have somebody ask that lobbyist to leave, knowing I couldn’t force him to leave,” said Mr. Taylor, who led the House Economic Matters Committee from 1987 to 1994.

The policy in other states varies, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s not unusual for state legislatures to exempt themselves from open-meetings laws, she said, but it is unusual for residents — including lobbyists — to be shuffled out of committee voting sessions.

Voting in Virginia’s legislative committees is open, and advocates and lobbyists are welcome. On Capitol Hill, congressional committee voting sessions are widely attended.

Historically, committee voting in Annapolis was conducted under an even heavier cloak of secrecy. Before the system was revamped in the early 1970s, committees did not officially record their votes. Bills were amended, approved or killed, but there was no record of how legislators voted.

“Obviously, it was a good day when we changed that rule,” Mr. Taylor said.

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