Gov. Martin O'Malley has been calling for a special session of the General Assembly next month to deal with the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall. This is a very bad idea.
A special session removes the safeguards that were put in place to ensure open and transparent government. The state constitution provides for an Assembly meeting of 90 days each year. This allows complex issues to be fully explored through public hearings, discussion, deliberation and careful consideration. When large and complex issues are forced into special session, the volume of discourse - and therefore the level of public participation - is significantly reduced.
Our tax code has been in disarray for many decades. Governors have been warning us of the structural deficit since Spiro Agnew was in office. The idea that some sort of crisis is at hand is largely manufactured to create an atmosphere more conducive to special interests than to quality legislation.
A special session concentrates power in the hands of a small group of lawmakers. Because any tax package would be created almost entirely by those lawmakers fortunate enough to be in positions of fiscal leadership within the Assembly, those who sit on other committees, or who lack leadership posts, would be excluded from the formulation of the revenue package. For many Marylanders, this means that they would have no representation at the table as this package is developed. The lobbyists would be there representing the special interests, but the elected voices of most Marylanders would be locked out of the process.
A special session also lacks the campaign finance safeguards of the regular Assembly. Before the regular session begins, lawmakers and the governor are required to disclose any recent fundraising activities, so that we have a transparent view of the people and entities making contributions. But there is no such requirement during a special session.
In fact, lawmakers are free to solicit and receive campaign contributions during a special session. Developing a massive tax package without financial disclosure is an insult to every taxpayer.
The proposed timing of the special session creates additional uncertainty about our revenue picture. Because the comptroller's office will not have the updated revenue estimates until mid- to late December, making decisions in November is particularly unwise. Given the flux in the economy, waiting a few weeks for the correct and updated information is the only proper course.
Another problem with a special session is that it reduces the power of the Assembly while increasing the power of the governor. In a regular session, a balance is maintained between the legislative and executive branches. The executive relies on the legislature to pass any tax measures, and because the legislature cannot add spending to the budget, it relies on the governor to include new items. This creates a negotiating environment where cooperation is imperative.
In the proposed special session, the issue at hand is revenue, not spending. When the governor asks a legislator for his or her vote, all he has to offer in return are his assurances of help in the regular January session. This undermines the constitutionally created bargaining power of each lawmaker and ultimately serves to concentrate still more power in the hands of the governor.
Noel Levy is a community activist and former candidate for the House of Delegates who lives in Pikesville. His e-mail is email@example.com.