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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Instead of Railing Against Hogan's Budget, Assembly Democrats Should Focus Efforts on Reforming the Process

It's abundantly clear that most Democratic members of the Maryland General Assembly are not pleased with major elements of Governor Hogan's proposed budget. The most contentious issues include a significant reduction in the rate of increase for spending on K-12 education and the elimination of a promised 2% cost of living increase for state employees. House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate Budget Committee Vice Chair Richard Madaleno have been among the most vocal opponents of the budget. Numerous Democrats have pledged to fight Hogan's budget.

But their pledges and their passions amount to next to nothing. There is precious little that any Democrat (or Republican) in the Assembly can do to substantively change Hogan's budget. Maryland adopted an executive centered budget process via a constitutional amendment it 1916 and ever since the General Assembly has been without the power of the purse. According to the constitution of Maryland, the Assembly cannot increase spending in the governor's budget and it cannot move funds around in an effort to increase funding in one area by reducing it elsewhere. All the Assembly can really do is reduce the amount of spending proposed by the governor.  The Assembly can introduce legislation to provide funding for programs - but only if the legislation identifies a funding source (e.g. raising taxes). Certainly, members of the Assembly can work with Hogan and try to convince him to introduce a supplemental budget that provides more funding for programs they value, but failing that, Hogan's budget will stand.

If Democrats in the Assembly really want to make a difference they will work to support SB 660, sponsored by Senators Madaleno, Guzzone, and Manno.  The bill would undo a constitutional amendment that has long outlived it's usefulness. The key section in the state constitution can be found in Article 2, Sec. 52 (6):
(6) The General Assembly shall not amend the Budget Bill so as to affect either the obligations of the State under Section 34 of Article III of the Constitution, or the provisions made by the laws of the State for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools or the payment of any salaries required to be paid by the State of Maryland by the Constitution thereof; and the General Assembly may amend the bill by increasing or diminishing the items therein relating to the General Assembly, and by increasing or diminishing the items therein relating to the judiciary, but except as hereinbefore specified, may not alter the said bill except to strike out or reduce items therein, provided, however, that the salary or compensation of any public officer shall not be decreased during his term of office; and such bill, when and as passed by both Houses, shall be a law immediately without further action by the Governor (amended by Chapter 373, Acts of 1972, ratified Nov. 7, 1972).
So in Maryland, the General Assembly is allowed to amend the budget to increase or decrease appropriations for the operation of the General Assembly or the judiciary, but it all other cases it may only reduce or eliminate spending. This is simply ridiculous! It's hard to imagine anything more counter to the concept of representational democracy than a legislature without the power of the purse. In no other state are legislators so irrelevant to the budget process. In roughly half of the states, governors are tasked with developing a budget (much like the president), but that budget is then subject to revision by the legislature. In the other half, the governor and the legislature share the responsibility of making the budget.

How did we wind up with such an executive-centric process? We overreacted to a budget crisis. Maryland was faced with a huge deficit in 1916 and the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the General Assembly. Our solution? Strip the Assembly of its budget power and hand it all over to the governor. We see how well that worked out. Our ongoing struggles with structural deficits make clear that executives are not any better at budgeting than are legislators.

It's time for Maryland to undo the overreaction of 1916. Instead of offering what are largely hollow pledges to "fight spending cuts," legislators should instead focus on an amendment to the state constitution that would restore the legislature's proper role in the budget process. SB 660 would restore the legislature's role while still respecting the power of the governor. The legislation is far from perfect, especially with regard to the line item veto restrictions that it would place on the governor, but it's a good start.

And no, I'm not proposing this because there's a Republican governor or because I agree with those who would have you believe that Hogan's budget is a draconian overreach. I'm proposing this reform for the same reason I support redistricting reform, because both proposals would boost accountability and representation - two essential ingredients for democracy (unfortunately, none of the redistricting reform legislation introduced thus far is worth discussing).

** I'd like to add that I think Republicans in the Assembly should line up in support of this reform as well. There have been 2 Republican governors in the last 4 decades in Maryland. In most circumstances the GOP is totally shut out of the budget process. If the Assembly actually played a meaningful role then the GOP could gain opportunities to have a role as well. And keep in mind, the GOP made historic gains in the 2014 election. In the Senate, they GOP is 5 seats away from being able to filibuster legislation, thereby earning an automatic seat at the bargaining table. There are 4 Democratic Senators who won with less that 52% of the vote and another 4 or 5 who won in districts carried by Larry Hogan. At present, the MD GOP is one or two election cycles away from being a full-fledged minority partner in governing in the General Assembly. Wouldn't it be better to be a minority partner with the ability to influence the budget as opposed to a minority partner forced to wait for the next Republican governor?