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OPINION: Special Sessions Give Taste of Full-Time Legislature – A Bad One

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The County Times Newspaper

The Southern Calvert Gazette Newspaper

Posted on May 21, 2012

Commentary by Len Lazarick, Len@MarylandReporter.com

Last week’s special session and another that seems likely to be called in mid-summer gave us all a taste how a full-time legislature might feel. It feels lousy.

In his often provocative blog, St. Mary’s College Professor Todd Eberly suggested last month that a full-time legislature might be just what the doctor ordered. Says Eberly: “Studies show that full-time legislatures spend more time responding to constituent demands and are more responsive to constituents. Full-time legislatures are more prone to enact governmental reforms, especially with regard to personnel. Full-time legislatures demonstrate more efficient legislating (as opposed to what we just witnessed) and a greater willingness to enact more complex measures.”

Unfortunately, Eberly does not cite the studies showing that a round-the-year legislature does a better job. The states that make lawmaking full-time don’t really seem more wise or productive, despite higher pay and bigger staffs.

According to a chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures, these states include California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania, and those with an almost full-time legislature: Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

Full-time doesn’t equal better

Some people have taken to calling Maryland “California East,” but we’ll take Maryland’s budget problems over Sacramento’s $16 billion deficit any day. In March, the New York Times reported, Albany had “one of the smoothest state budget negotiations at the Capitol in years,” passing the budget TWO DAYS before the start of the fiscal year. It was “the first time the Legislature had approved a state spending plan with more than 24 hours to spare since 1983,” said the Times.

In Illinois, lawmakers appear to pass the budget in plenty of time – but it still leaves the state comptroller unable to pay at least $4 billion Illinois owes vendors and contractors, and the state continues to float bonds to pay employee pensions, a desperate measure. In New Jersey, Chris Christie, the in-your-face Republican governor, says the legislature “raised taxes and fees 115 times in eight years” before he took over. New Jersey taxes have Maryland’s beat by a mile.

Overall, the record of full-time legislatures is not impressive. It appears that whether legislatures are large or small, have big staffs or tiny, 60-day sessions or year-round marathons, they operate on the basis of deadlines. As deadlines near, activity becomes frantic, political pressure mounts, deals get made and things get done – or undone, as the case may be.

Senate President Mike Miller now says he wants the Senate to consider a rule that the budget must be passed 10 days before end of session. Apparently, a Senate rule would be more effective than the very clear budget deadlines set in the state Constitution.

Lights, cameras, debate

Debates often take much longer in the Senate, where the senators talk longer and it requires a super majority to get them to shut up. But the debate on the final vote in the House on Wednesday took almost three hours. At least 23 of the 43 Republicans in the House got up to speak in an animated and vigorous discussion. Del. Mike McDermott of the Lower Shore boomed so loud that Speaker Michael Busch counseled him to use his “inside voice.”

It was a far cry from Tuesday’s desultory debate on the preliminary vote on the same bills, in which the Republicans seemed to be going through the motions. The difference on Wednesday, observed one Democratic leader, was the eight TV cameras lined up on the right side of the chamber; they stayed mostly for the whole debate. At Tuesday’s late afternoon session, there was only one camera.

Another unusual aspect of Wednesday’s debate was how often the Republicans quoted a letter from Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot — seven times by one person’s count. The letter called the tax hikes “the wrong approach at the wrong time.” It tallied up multiple tax increases from the last five years, and related that to the decline in weekly earnings for Marylanders, many of them “underemployed.”

The long, detailed letter was perfect fodder for the Republican arguments. Franchot has consistently and clearly shored up his credentials as the fiscal conservative among the potential Democratic candidates for governor. But he’s not winning allies among Democratic leaders or most of his former colleagues in the House.

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