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Create a task force to help

Endemic: Though disdained by some, bills to set up advisory panels are all the rage in Maryland.

March 14, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Pit bulls bite. Kids are too fat. Old folks just won't stay put.

Got a problem? Someone in the Maryland General Assembly has a solution: Set up a task force.

Nowhere in the state Constitution of Maryland, which takes up 39 pages in the Maryland Manual, will you find the words "task force."

But judging by the number of bills proposing the creation of new task forces, they would seem to be a virtual fourth branch of state government. (Or is it fifth, after the lobbyists?)

Of the more than 2,400 bills legislators in Annapolis will consider this year, more than 60 of them would establish task forces or their close cousins - study commissions and advisory councils - to make legislative recommendations to the General Assembly.

The topics of the proposed task forces can be as broad as "Democracy and Representative Government in Maryland for the 21st Century" (HB 1250) or as specific as "Parking for Individuals with Disabilities" (SB 368).

Their goals can be as ambitious as "Prevention and Elimination of Cervical Cancer" (SB 499) or as mundane as to "Examine and Establish Boundaries of the Prince George's County School Board Districts" (SB 222).

Among the bills proposed this year to create task forces are:

HB 432, defeated in committee, in which Del. Charles R. Boutin attempted to create a task force sniffing around the issue of "Dangerous Dogs in Maryland." (The canine-minded Harford County Republican was also co-sponsor of a bill, since withdrawn, allowing presumably nondangerous dogs in restaurants.)

HB 309, in which Del. Joan F. Stern, a Montgomery Democrat, suggests expanding government to include an "Advisory Council on Obesity in Youth."

HB 966, in which Republican Del. Jean B. Cryor of Montgomery seeks to "Study the Dynamics of Elderly and Retiree Migration Into and Out of Maryland." (Hint: It's warmer in Florida.)

HB 342, in which Del. Emmitt C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, proposes a "Task Force to Study the Dearth of Minority Owned Automobile Dealerships in Maryland."

Some legislators view the genre of "task-force bills" with disdain. They occupy a sort of legislative netherworld between "real" bills, which actually do something, and joint resolutions, which are little more than an expression of opinion.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said he has always hated task-force bills. The Montgomery County Democrat pointed to the unwieldy size of many of the panels, which are often packed with representatives of any group with even a remote interest in the topic.

"It's like the cast of Ben Hur sometimes," he said.

Barve noted that some legislative committees and their chairmen have a standing policy of not creating task forces. When House Speaker Michael E. Busch was chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, his panel was known as a graveyard for task-force bills.

If the record of past sessions prevails, many task forces will be proposed but few will be created. Some, however, will make it through the legislative gantlet and into existence, with an eminent chairman appointed by the governor and a membership carefully prescribed by law.

These task forces and commissions, usually made up of unpaid citizens, will meet, study, hold public hearings, debate and write a report to the legislature. Some of these reports are destined for quick oblivion and wind up gathering dust in the legislative library.

Others, however, make a lasting mark on Maryland. The educational funding formula that is driving the state's slots and budget debate was crafted by a glorified task force known as the Thornton Commission. Several important bills before the legislature this year, including a proposal to bring public funding of election campaigns to Maryland, are based on task-force reports.

Cryor, who served on the Thornton panel and many other task forces during her legislative career, believes they have a useful place in the process. She said they give members a chance to examine complex issues without the rush of the legislative session. "There's a real prejudice against task forces, but there shouldn't be a prejudice against gathering knowledge, and that's what a good task force does," she said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he has lead or served on several task forces, and that he believes they can play a "very positive" role. For instance, he said, if the House and Senate disagree on an issue, sometimes a task force can help work out the differences.

In some cases, a lawmaker will propose substantive, trail-blazing legislation only to see it amended into a task-force bill. Sponsors who have gone through that process of legislative gelding often show up with wan smiles on bill-signing day.

In other cases, proposing a task force is a tactic for fending off a signing.

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