Sunday, March 20, 2011

Decisions in Annapolis

The legislative session each year in Maryland is a period of three frenetic months during which there are many hearings on proposed legislation Frequently there is prolonged public discussion about bills, while many citizens wander the halls of power to lobby about their interests or noisily rally on lobby night (Monday evenings) in Lawyers Square to promote their causes. Elected officials attend forums, speak at civic events and update constituents about progress of particular bills. Many senators and delegates send frequent letters and emails explaining their votes and receive communications in return. Maryland has what is termed a citizen or part-time legislature -- although their duties extend throughout the year after the session, many officials have other jobs the remainder of the year and all are only paid for part-time service.

Despite improvements in recent years, the legislative process is not as transparent as it might be. Often bills are amended with intent to dilute or defeat them. Other times, committee members do not allow bills to pass out of committee, so the public never gets the opportunity to hear a free debate on the merits of the issue at hand. Sometimes, to the view of the public, committees deal with matters that seem to have little actual bearing on their mandate, but such is the governance of our state. Committee Chairs in Annapolis have a lot of power and are seldom reticent in establishing their control as they perceive it. Montgomery County has worked hard to continue to keep local officials in these positions once obtained. Currently the county has one Senate Chair -- Brian Frosh, who leads the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Three senators from the county are on that committee. Three other senators from Montgomery County serve on the Budget and Taxation Committee. In the House of Delegates our one chair is Sheila Hixson, who leads the powerful Ways and Means Committee -- a total of five county delegates sit on that committee. Ways and Means and Judicial proceedings, where Kathleen Dumais is Vice-chair, have the highest percentage memberships on any committee for Montgomery County with five delegates serving on each. Chairs are allocated by the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House. The majority party in charge makes the choices, so Maryland committee chairs are all Democratic elected officials.

Given this background, bills raise and dash hopes as they proceed through the legislative process. A bill passes the Senate, only to stall in the House. Bills pass but are amended and must be reconsidered. A flurry of legislation becomes a blizzard by the final days of the session when there is little time for modification, mediation or considered deliberation. Sometimes, as a result, good bills die and bad legislation succeeds. The attitude in Annapolis seems to be: "we’ll fix it next year." There must be a more logical way to run a state, but it has not yet surfaced.

A look at the status of several bills considered progressive in the so-called "blue state" of Maryland should give us all pause and perhaps compel us to go back and look at candidate promises made during campaigns and perhaps spur some action to hold our elected officials to their public statements. Many voters have certain interests that make them choose one candidate over another. For me, for example, a candidate who supports renewable energy and voices concern for environmental issues might be favored over one thought to be in the pocket of those not favoring EPA safety concerns. Voters weigh candidates on multiple issues often giving more weight to issues close to home. Some voters are single issue voters such as on women's choices or school vouchers. Those voters may not investigate other positions their chosen candidate has taken and may subsequently be poorly informed voters. Some voters address ethnic or religious similarities and vote for a candidate on perceived shared interests or identities. Voting is often emotional, rather than rational. (Was Scott Brown chosen as a U.S. Senator (R-MA) for his choice of party, his intellectual prowess, work ethic or "star quality" as a former model?)

Recently I joined many progressive groups as we journeyed to Annapolis to hold the first Progressive Summit. We also rallied, lobbied, heard from and presented our issues to state elected officials. We, who were from Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore and Prince George's Counties, were assured by most that they supported our concerns. However a recent check on some of the measures does not hold a lot of hope for their passage.

Dream Act -- has passed the Senate and awaits a decision by the House of Delegates. It seems to have momentum this year. Maybe it will make it. It appears that it will get no Republican support.

Wind Power -- supported by the Governor, seemed to be on the inside track but has run out of steam and opposition is gathering. I am hopeful that the concerns over nuclear energy may give this a much needed boost.

Combined Reporting -- would bring in revenue in a year when revenues are hurting; opposed by the Chambers of Commerce, large businesses who avoid Maryland taxes and the Examiner papers. For it: many small businesses based here who already pay their fair share of taxes to the state. It is said that it sometimes takes several years to pass a bill in Annapolis. It is looking doubtful also for this one.

Marriage Equality -- was passed by the Senate and released from committee to await a House of Delegates vote when some Delegates got cold feet and despite eloquent pleas from gay members, a vote was avoided. It has now been sent back to await a future reprieve, maybe next year. Personally, despite the merits of the bill -- which I support -- I think it will be skipped next year as no Democrats want to give the national opponents of this bill a reason to storm into the blue state of Maryland for a gay marriage referendum vote in a Presidential election year. For those Delegates who sponsored the bill, and others who ran on support of this and backed out, I do hope the voters have good and long memories. Too often politicians expect that votes taken are easily forgotten; here, votes avoided should be remembered.

Health care -- Maryland single payer is not happening. Small incremental reforms may yet happen. Certainly Maryland is one of the states going forward with Medicaid expansion. But as one who supports a national single payer program, I do wish that this state had shown the way.

Other issues apparently not happening which should: campaign finance reform, alcohol tax, gas tax, pension stability.

I'd love to hear from you about measures which should have been considered but weren't, or which you feel should not have passed but did.

I’ve gone out on a limb with my prognostications here -- let's hear yours.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your observations, Sharon. I am a voter who has a long memory. Sam Arora's one-term will be a measure of that.

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