90 days of disappointment

April 25, 2010|By Ryan O'Donnell

If you Google the words "90 days," you get a lot of self-help books, like "Love in 90 Days" and "90 Days to a New Life Direction." What's so appealing about that number that inspires us to think we will be able to accomplish so much during that time? With little to show after another dismal 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, we could ask that question of our state lawmakers.

Legislative hopes were mixed on Day One. Although one might have hoped for bold action, the combination of a budget deficit and timid politicians facing re-election argued for restraint. Unfortunately, like so many purchasers of self-help books, Marylanders were left with a lingering sense of disappointment at the end and the question of whether those 90 days were spent wisely.

Time does matter. Running out of time can be fatal in Annapolis, and several good bills died simply because the clock struck midnight on Sine Die, the last day of the session. For example, Del. Al Carr's modernization of the Public Information Act would have let people get government information in a cheaper, more convenient format — a great idea to strengthen democracy. With an extra 20 minutes, it could have passed.

But it's hard to blame the Maryland Constitution for setting this 90-day curfew. (After all, lawmakers have to return home to tend their crops at some point.) The far more obvious marks are the corruption, sensationalism and blarney that wasted so much time in the first place.

Take Del. Don Dwyer's effort to impeach the attorney general because of his ruling that Maryland can recognize out-of-state gay marriages. Ah, if only the constitution allowed impeachment in cases of high crimes and differences of opinion. Despite the absurdity, his circus consumed hours of debate.

Another questionable undertaking, backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, would have surreptitiously funneled millions in taxpayer money to private religious schools. House Speaker Michael Busch and Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila Hixson had the integrity to kill the bill after it passed the Senate. Still, this offensive proposal was actually considered a priority for a while.

Then there was a bill to expand gambling in Maryland by setting up card games at Rosecroft Raceway. Again, this was a failed effort that nonetheless subtracted from the number of days legislators had to do serious lawmaking.

You may think time flies in Annapolis, but lawmakers are acutely aware of it. Case in point: Every elected official younger than 40 sends out an e-mail newsletter. Most arrive weekly with time-marking titles like "Getting Ready for the Legislative Session," or perhaps the uplifting "Two weeks to go." Staff and lobbyists mark critical legislative dates on their calendars and celebrate the milestones.

So, why did the General Assembly not make better use of its brief 90? You can approach that question from many directions, because the General Assembly fell flat on its face on many issues. Perhaps the most inexcusable failure, however, was the rejection of any and all remedies to restore public faith in government itself.

In a year when a gonzo Supreme Court disemboweled 100 years of campaign finance law with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, Maryland took no action to pass public campaign financing or any meaningful reform to reduce the power of lobbyists and special interests in Annapolis. Despite his previous support of public financing, Senate President Miller performed a cynical flip-flop this year and single-handedly killed the bill.

And while the presiding officers won praise by posting votes of House and Senate committees on the state website early on, leadership in both chambers wasted months stonewalling the Maryland Open Government Act sponsored by Del. Heather Mizeur.

Irony, anyone? This bill, one of the strongest transparency measures in a long time, was actually killed behind closed doors, bottled up in the swamp-like Rules Committee. The public continues to be perplexed by a General Assembly that refuses to let most reform bills come to a vote, preferring to smother them quietly and out of sight. But even Delegate Dwyer's loony impeachment bill got a vote.

The failures of 2010, however, show more than a lack of a moral compass — the political calculus is also missing. Running on such a weak legislative scorecard is going to be problematic for Democrats and Republicans alike. Killing public-interest legislation is not an easy one to go back to your district and explain.

Life is too short to avoid the serious things. So are Maryland's legislative sessions. The General Assembly would have done better to work toward the fundamental reforms that help people and build trust in government. Time will tell if I am right in this, because just after midnight on Sine Die, election season began.

Ryan O'Donnell is executive director of Common Cause Maryland. His e-mail is rodonnell@commoncause.org.

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