Relax, Maryland, Your Legislators Aren't At Work

BARRY RASCOVAR

July 18, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Taxpayers are getting a break this summer -- in more ways thanone.

Not only is money being saved by the Maryland General Assembly, but lawmakers are being denied the opportunity to micromanage government and to create busy work to justify their existence.

Chalk it up to a happy coincidence. Legislative leaders, faced with cutting back General Assembly operations earlier this year to help balance the state budget, decided to eliminate reimbursements for committee meetings this summer -- an item that meant on the order of $10,000 a week in expenses in previous years. As a result, all of the major Assembly committees have shelved their activities until after Labor Day.

This means you can sleep well for the next three months -- the legislature won't be meeting in Annapolis.

Instead, lawmakers get a needed breather, a chance to take off their hats as elected politicians and mingle with friends, neighbors and constituents all summer to learn what's really on their minds.

It also gives them a chance to put their legislative duties aside and re- experience everyday life.

That's important. It is crucial to the effectiveness of a citizen-legislature.

These elective jobs were designed to be part-time. It was envisioned that legislators would return to their regular lines of work and resume normal family duties the rest of the year, learning first-hand what laws need fixing and how tax dollars can best be spent.

In recent years, Maryland legislators have gotten away from this concept.

Their legislative work schedules more and more resembled a full-time occupation. And in the process, they were losing touch with what was happening to Joe and Janet Citizen. Anyone who has experienced life in the whirlwind of State House activities knows how easy it is to succumb to the trappings of elective office, the fawning of lobbyists and the sense of superiority that comes from wielding power.

Spending a full summer among the common folks should be a eye-opening reality-check. When these legislators finally resume their duties in Annapolis, they will do so with a different perspective. It makes for better legislating.

This was proved last session. In 1992, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell barred his committees from meeting in the summertime.

The goal was to give delegates a much-needed break after nearly two years of emergency special sessions and intense regular sessions. Some of Mr. Mitchell's colleagues worried that this would deprive them of crucial time to study issues and craft legislation.

Instead, Mr. Mitchell's summer break produced a refreshed House that attacked its workload far more effectively when the ++ 1993 regular session began in January.

Too often, summer meetings had been used by lawmakers to justify their salaries, to create busy work to elevate their importance, to micromanage government agencies so as to occupy their time. The result was more legislation than necessary, much of it useless and some of it clearly mischievous.

Committees tended to meet far more frequently than in the past so that legislators could collect more expense money and turn the part-year legislature into a year-round engine of government.

Mr. Mitchell once again took the lead in cutting out summer meetings this year. He says that his delegates seem to enjoy staying put in their districts, where they can set down a more regular schedule for meeting with concerned constituents. Whatever homework on issues they want to do can be handled on a more leisurely basis.

If the General Assembly enjoys another banner year of legislating in 1994, the notion of sending lawmakers home for the summer might become a permanent part of the State House routine. It certainly makes sense.

Citizen-legislators aren't supposed to be meeting 12 months a year; they need to spend more time as ordinary citizens and less time as legislators.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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