Words Matter

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Senate Bill 1028, called “Balancing the State Budget,” passed the state legislature in a mad rush on the last day of session. This bill would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to give the legislature more power over the state budget. Though this idea has been floated before, it has never passed when debated properly. Now, under adverse circumstances due to the pandemic, and without a public hearing, it was pushed through within hours.

I want to share a good description of the bill as explained by former State Senator George W. Della Jr. (Democrat-Baltimore City) and as reported in Maryland Matters on March 24, so you can see how your Maryland General Assembly is being led:

I served in the Maryland State Senate for 28 years and remain interested in the activities of the legislature. The coverage of the final day of a General Assembly session is always difficult because hundreds of bills are enacted, but only Maryland Matters reported on the passage of Senate Bill 1028 on the day after Sine Die. This may be the most consequential legislation passed by this year’s General Assembly.

Your article relayed the immediate political retribution administered to Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith (Democrat-Prince George’s) for being the only Democrat to speak and vote against the bill. In retaliation for her position, she was, within minutes, stripped of her position as House chair of the Spending Affordability Committee. Given the nature of Senate Bill 1028, the removal of a Spending Affordability Committee chair is very troubling.

Senate Bill 1028 would allow the legislature to “move money around” in the governor’s budget. So, for example, if the governor asked for $200 million for the COVID-19 crisis, the legislature might decide to allow him $100 million and use the other $100 million to fund public education enhancements such as those enacted in the Kirwan bill.

Proposals identical to Senate Bill 1028 have been banging around the legislature for the last 25 years and, until now, they have never passed, which should’ve given this legislature some pause. Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee (on which Ms. Valentino-Smith serves) never held a hearing on Senate Bill 1028 (the hearing on a similar but not identical House bill was conducted without the benefit of the public because of the coronavirus lockdown).

Senate Bill 1028 was presented to members of the committee with six hours to go in the session and contained partial and misleading “referendum language” which suggested that passage of the bill would result in no significant changes. There was no public hearing. Make no mistake: the enactment of Senate Bill 1028 will materially change the Maryland budgetary process.

The heavy-handed disciplining of Delegate Valentino-Smith was autocratic, politically clumsy and unjustified. However, beyond this political kerfuffle, the real danger is the actual bill itself. It was a proposal that should’ve been completely vetted with a public hearing which could have been carried out at the proposed May special session of the General Assembly.

Delegate Valentino-Smith did what we ask our elected officials to do: Vote your conscience even when that means you are speaking truth to power.

The leadership of the House of Delegates should be deeply embarrassed.

So there it is – not a pretty picture. Thank you, Senator Della, for speaking up. Ballot questions are worded to entice voters to approve them, so educating the public on what this precisely means will be the next task.

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