Ballot question wording tossed

Md. secretary of state reverts to Assembly's land-sale language

Maryland votes 2006

September 01, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Tom Pelton | Andrew A. Green and Tom Pelton,sun reporters

Amid criticism from legislative leaders and environmentalists, Maryland's secretary of state has agreed to scrap her wording of a ballot question on whether to amend the state constitution to restrict state land sales.

Instead, Secretary of State Mary D. Kane said she would use the wording of the amendment as approved by the General Assembly.

"We didn't want to have a fight over something we didn't intend to have a fight over," said Kane, who was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Democrats in the legislature and several environmental groups had complained that Kane, a Republican, had adopted language that was intentionally confusing and could prejudice voters against the amendment.

The amendment, if approved by voters, would require General Assembly approval before the state could sell parkland or preserved land.

Kane announced her decision on the same day that the Maryland League of Conservation Voters filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court demanding she revert to the General Assembly's language. She said she made the decision before hearing about the suit.

Terry Harris, an attorney and league board member who filed the suit, said he was pleased with Kane's decision.

He said he would need to see an official version of the wording, but that if it reverts to the General Assembly's language, the lawsuit likely would be moot.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor has no position on how Kane should word the ballot question.

"It is entirely her decision, and the governor respects her authority," Fawell said. "The governor remains fully supportive of this amendment and hopes it passes."

The proposed amendment followed an attempt by the Ehrlich administration to sell preserved land in St. Mary's County to a politically connected construction company owner.

Administration officials initially tried to sell the land without an appraisal to a person described only as a benefactor. The Sun reported that the intended purchaser was Willard Hackerman, owner of Whiting-Turner construction company and that he could have reaped millions in tax breaks from the deal.

The proposed restriction on land sales initially drew opposition from Republicans in the General Assembly, but after Ehrlich endorsed it the measure passed easily, meaning the proposed amendment will appear on the November ballot.

State law gives the task of writing a description of ballot questions to the secretary of state.

Kane drew criticism from environmentalists and Democrats for approving language describing the amendment that was much longer and, in the eyes of detractors, more baffling than the text of the amendment itself.

The original amendment reads: "The Board of Public Works may not approve the sale, transfer, exchange, grant or other permanent disposition of any state-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest, or parkland without the express approval of the General Assembly."

Kane' s language gave a description of the bureaucratic process involved as three state agencies analyze potential land sales.

It also said: "This constitutional amendment will require the Board of Public Works to delay the sale, transfer, exchange, grant or any permanent disposition of any state-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest, or park land."

The League of Conservation Voters said in its lawsuit: "The language certified by the Secretary of State is misleading, confusing, fails to properly apprise the voters of the actual scope and effect of the measure proposed, fails to fairly represent the clear and unambiguous intent of the legislature, and is in violation of state law."

Kane initially defended her version, saying it provided voters with a better explanation of what the amendment would do and how it would change current law.

But she said that after reviewing the General Assembly's language for the amendment itself, she is comfortable with it appearing on the ballot.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who was one of the amendment's lead sponsors, called Kane's decision "terrific."

The ballot question has a political dimension in that some Republicans believed it was intended to embarrass the governor by reminding voters of the failed land deal.

Some Democrats implied that Kane, whose husband is chairman of the state Republican Party, had altered the wording to diminish any effect it might have on the governor's race.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, said Kane's decision proves that Democrats' claims of political motivation were baseless.

"What comes to mind immediately is sometimes if the baby is crying and whining enough, you stick a pacifier in its mouth and make it happy," O'Donnell said.

Dru Schmidt Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving open space, said it's "great" that the ballot will have the General Assembly language. "We supported the clear and straightforward language, and this saves everyone a lot of time and angst," Perkins said.

andy.green@baltsun.com

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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