Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

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As you may know, the Maryland General Assembly session was just 71 days rather than 90 days. As part of the effort to contain COVID-19, Maryland's legislative session adjourned early on March 18. Given the emerging health crisis, which shortened session and limited public hearings in the last couple weeks, one would think that legislation passed in days before adjournment would have focused on urgent matters: passing a constitutionally mandated balanced budget and legislation needed to manage the crisis and to function for the next year.

That happened, to some extent. A balanced budget was passed. The following was passed: legislation to improve access to any COVID-19 vaccine if it becomes available; to prohibit price gouging; to expand unemployment insurance for individuals if their employer temporarily closes; to place limitations on individuals under quarantine from losing their jobs; to improve access to telehealth services and needed medical care; and to reduce barriers to test screenings.

Unfortunately, with the public eye turned toward COVID-19, the Democrat machine in Annapolis took advantage of the crisis to muscle questionable legislation through. In the final hours of session, fellow Delegate Matt Morgan cynically quipped during floor debate that the majority party would “never let a crisis go to waste.”

Maryland designed its unique budget process over a hundred years ago to correct rampant legislative overspending. Under Maryland’s constitution, the budget must be balanced every year, with any deficit or surplus from the preceding year accounted for. The governor drafts a budget bill and submits it to the General Assembly. The General Assembly can cut, but not reallocate, funds from the governor's budget. This constraint on reallocating funds causes friction between our Democrat-dominated legislature and Republican governor.

Governor Larry Hogan has taken a fair amount of heat for not "releasing" funds, most memorably to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, that the legislature inappropriately reallocated. In any event, once the operating budget, which constitutionally must be balanced, is passed by both the House and the Senate, it is final.

Legislation that passed late in session, Senate Bill 1028 changes the process. A constitutional amendment will be on the ballot this November, and if approved by the voters, the General Assembly will be empowered to reallocate budget funds as it chooses, changing the balance of power, beginning in 2024.

Putting change before the voters doesn't sound bad, but how it was handled was wrong. The Senate passed SB 1028 on March 17. The next day, facing emergency session adjournment and during lockdown of the General Assembly, the House Appropriations Committee approved the bill without public hearing, and sent it to the House floor for vote that afternoon. Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Prince George’s Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, voiced concerns over the propriety of voting on a bill without public hearing in the House of Delegates. Several Republican delegates rose to raise objections to the bill, but the Speaker of the House, Adrienne Jones, refused to recognize some Republicans, myself included. As House rules preclude addressing the assembly without recognition from the speaker, Republicans were silenced by limiting our questions or expressing our misgivings before the vote.

Why, at the last minute and during a crisis, were we voting on a bill that doesn't take effect for four years? Why put it on the November ballot in the 2020 presidential election year when public attention focuses on national issues, instead of the 2020 gubernatorial election year, which will spotlight state policy? Would this change in the balance of power lead to higher spending and higher taxes? Why include confusing language suggesting a balanced budget requirement when Maryland already has one? Using confusing language in a voter referendum, after all, resulted in the 2012 passage of Question 5, which Democratic gerrymanders use to justify Maryland's highly partisan congressional district maps.

At some level, we Republicans expect to be ignored by the Democratic majority in the legislature, but what happened next was chilling. Following the vote, Speaker Jones immediately appointed a new chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee. Who chaired that committee prior? Delegate Valentino-Smith, who spoke against SB 1028. The message was public, loud and very clear: do not question leadership’s power, or we will take away yours.

It’s the political equivalent of standing up and turning backs in a shunning ritual. Delegate Valentino-Smith called it retribution, and other Democrats rebuked her for speaking to the press. It has been said that when one person or group has too much power, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It felt that way to me right before Sine Die.

This November, please carefully review this budget ballot question and all ballot questions when you cast your vote for president and other candidates.

Delegate Michael Malone (michael.malone@house.state.md.us) is a Republican who represents Severna Park in the Maryland General Assembly.

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