Thursday, April 26, 2012

Maryland Needs a Full-Time Legislature

As fallout from the Great Annapolis Meltdown of 2012 continues to reverberate word comes that the most likely solution to the Tax Increases/Casino Gambling impasse will be to have two special sessions of the General Assembly. The first special session will take place in May and will deal only with the issue of tax increases so as to avoid the $500 million in spending cuts contained in the "Doomsday Budget." The second special session would likely be called in August and would focus on gaming.

Commenting on the possibility of two special sessions a mere two months apart Governor O'Malley said: “I think that both issues deserve a hearing and some resolution... What made this session very disappointing and frustrating by the end was considering both of those issues at the same time.”

In other words, the General Assembly attempted to walk and chew gum at the same time and wound up falling face down with its bubblicious stuck to the sidewalk.

The catastrophe that was the end of the 2012 legislative session inflicted serious damage on the reputations of the state, the Assembly, Governor O'Malley, Speaker Mike Busch, and especially Senate President Mike Miller. Calling two special session to "resolve" the issues of taxes and gaming will do nothing to restore those reputations. Quite the contrary, the possibility of two sessions raises serious questions about the judgement of those managing the Free State.

Not only could the Assembly not manage to walk and chew gum during the 90 day session with its clearly defined and constitutionally prescribed timeline, the Assembly is apparently so incompetent as a body that it cannot be trusted to deal with more than one issue during a special session - that's the message being sent.

In reality, what all of this makes abundantly clear is that Maryland needs to abandon its antiquated part-time legislature and adopt a full-time Assembly.

Yes, you read that correctly. I realize that in the face of the Great Meltdown it may seem counter-intuitive to call for a full-time legislature. Perhaps it sounds like a recipe for multiplying the failings of the current Assembly - but hear me out.

Every year the General Assembly convenes in January and embarks on a hectic 90 day legislative marathon that ends in early April. Every year there are hundreds of bills left unpassed and dozens of issues left unaddressed as the constraints of the 90 day session force everything into a position secondary to the budget. For 90 days, the voices of every day Marylanders are drowned out by a horde of lobbyists camped out in Annapolis

The Assembly has made similar adjustments in the past. In 1948 the Assembly passed a constitutional amendment requiring an annual session and the length alternated annually between 30 and 90 days. In 1964 the annual sessions were set at 70 days and then in 1970 the current 90 day session was adopted.

In the late 1960s the Assembly added to its legislative capacity by creating the Department of Fiscal Services to offer analyses of the budget and generate fiscal notes for proposed legislation. The operating budget of the Assembly was increased allowing for more staff support and other resources. In the 1970s the Assembly reasserted some of its role in budgeting - first requiring a balanced budget and then empowering itself to mandate certain expenditures. But the trek toward true professionalization ended in the 1970s.

In 1979 Maryland was ranked 14th among the states with regard to legislative professionalization, when states were ranked again in 2003 Maryland had fallen to 18th. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maryland is among a large number of states that occupy a middle ground between a part-time, citizen legislature and a full-time, professional legislature.  Our neighbors - New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all have full-time, professional legislatures.

Since mid-century, the trend in the states has been toward more professionalization. The Maryland Assembly's committee system, leadership structure, and professional support all tilt toward a fully professional legislature. But its 90 day session, pay, and mostly otherwise employed legislators all tilt toward a part-time legislature. The fact that its standing committees meet once per week when the Assembly is not in session show the tug of war between being a full-time or a part-time Assembly. But weekly committee meetings cannot substitute for a working legislature.

What would a full-time legislature deliver to the states? 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.

I know that some may recoil at the though of more efficient legislating - as it means more legislating, but consider the challenges facing the state. The population is expected to grow by 1.5 million people in the next 2 decades. Where will they live? Where will their kids be educated? Where will they work? How will they drive to work? What impact will those 1.5 million folks and their cars and houses have on the health of the Chesapeake? Will Maryland address its aging and inadequate infrastructure? Neither Beltway is sufficient to traffic demands. The Bay bridge is no longer sufficient and there is an argument to made that the state needs a new span connect southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore - creating a new connection with Virginia via that states Bay/Bridge Tunnel. The Nice bridge on 301 connecting Maryland with Virginia is no longer sufficient. Public transportation in Baltimore is inadequate - in fact public transportation in the state is insufficient and geared toward those living right on the I-495 beltway periphery.

If the Assembly is not able to address gaming and tax increases in a 90 day session how will it possibly meet the challenges awaiting the state?

Let me offer a few other defenses of a full-time legislature. Imagine making all legislators full-time employees of the state. With that full-time employment would come a full-time salary and benefits AND a ban on outside employment and "consulting." No more conflicts of interest, no more quarter of a million consulting agreements. Also, the shift from part-time to full-time and the prohibition on outside employment would cause a more than a few of the current members to retire and provide Marylanders the chance to elect some new blood. A full-time legislature would empower individual members at the expense of Assembly leaders. Now, the 90 day window gives Assembly leadership power over members via their control of the calendar. It's easier to threaten to bottle up a legislator's bills in a short session than in a continuous session. A full-time legislature would also offer a stronger counterbalance to the state's executive centered system. Maryland's governor is considered to be among the most powerful in the nation - especially with regard to budgeting. A full-time legislature would be more likely to reclaim the powers that have been ceded to the governor over time.

For these reasons and more I think it is passed the time for Maryland to adopt a full-time legislature. As part of the reforms we must also stagger our legislative elections and place Delegates and Senators on different electoral schedules. At present, every member of the Assembly and every elected member of the executive branch is elected at the same time for the same 4 year term. This denies voters the opportunity to make mid-course corrections and express support for or displeasure with a governor's or Assembly's agenda. It puts every member of the Assembly on the same election cycle making it unlikely that anything difficult or even slightly controversial will be considered in the two years prior to the next election.

We have a full-time and fully professionalized executive branch, we have a full-time and fully professionalized judiciary. Yet the one branch that is actually tasked with representing the people is part-time and disadvantaged with regard to balancing the power of the executive. If you believe in separation of powers and checks and balances it's time to raise the legislature to a status equal to the other branches.

Maryland's Assembly is in need of reform. These reforms will make the General Assembly a more effective policy making body and one more responsive to voters. The Great Annapolis Meltdown has revealed real structural problems in Maryland government. The solution cannot be one special session, or two or three special sessions. The true solution involves fundamental reforms that would bring the Assembly into the 21st Century and provide it with the governing capacity to meet the multitude of challenges facing Maryland.

I welcome your thoughts (as opposed to rants), join the discussion on Twitter #fulltimeMDlegislature