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News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

Avoid a special session in Annapolis [Editorial]

If the Harford County delegation to Annapolis can be part of preventing a special session of the Maryland General Assembly after the election, they will have at least accomplished something.

Partially because they are mostly members of the largely ignored Republican Party in a legislature dominated by Democrats, and partly because some of them are a good deal more fond of political rock throwing than cutting deals to benefit their districts, Harford County's delegation to the General Assembly has been largely ineffectual for several election cycles.

Harford County residents have paid their taxes, but have seen relatively little in the way of state spending on projects for the county, be they roads, schools or parks. Such things are needed in the county, and the state certainly has had no trouble levying taxes and fees that end up being paid by people who live in Harford County, so the local delegation has a responsibility to advocate for a local share of what the state spends. Even under a Republican governor two election cycles ago, the local delegation fell short of the mark on securing a fair share for Harford County, even as major road and rail projects moved ahead in other Baltimore Metro counties and the D.C. suburbs.

For all their anti-tax talk, the local legislators couldn't prevent a gas tax increase or a sales tax increase. Similarly, they didn't have enough clout to prevent the state bureaucracy from increasing tolls for crossing the Susquehanna River between Perryville and Havre de Grace in such a way that is likely to have lasting economic effects on businesses on both sides of the divide.

In the week ahead, the final Maryland General Assembly session before the next state election will open. Most legislators will be focused a good deal more on being re-elected than on any particular issue, no matter how heartfelt their positions. It's a natural inclination to want to be returned to office to continue the job begun four or eight or 12 or however many years ago.

Given this dynamic, expect little to shift in the legislature. Even if all the local delegates and state senators became both conciliatory and especially good at negotiations, the stage is being set for those in office to best be able to retain their positions, to the degree that they want to.

Unfortunately, the political dynamic that favors no real changes in state policy, also favors a desire to not see any tax or fee increases from the coming 90-day session. Yet because the state has been spending more, on the whole, than it brings in, there will be pressure to make cuts or increase taxes.

When fiscal realities conflict with political realities in Annapolis, the prospects for a special legislative session increase. If the legislature fails to pass a budget, or worse yet passes a budget that's only partially funded, before the April end of the session, a special session is likely, and there's a chance it'll be called in mid-November after the election is over.

If that happens, some lame ducks who'll be out of office in a matter of weeks will be joined by safely re-elected or newly elected legislators to make decisions for which there will be no consequences for four years.

It's an unsavory prospect for a state where people have been hit by increased taxes, tolls and fees during economic bad times, regardless of which party they favor.

Moreover, in the dozen years from 1994 through 2005, one 90-day legislative session was enough for the year to accomplish what needed to be accomplished. In the seven years from 2006 through 2013, there have been five special sessions of the General Assembly, including two in 2012. Of those, the matter of what is referred to as a structural deficit has figured prominently in three: two dealt with budget and finance issues and one dealt with increasing gambling opportunities in the state for the purpose of increasing state revenue.

If the propensity for holding special sessions increases, Maryland could well end up with a full-time legislature rather than the nominally part-time one that has been in place in some form since before the Revolution.

It's only nominally part-time, by the way, because legislators are paid annual salaries, with good benefits, that would be the envy of a good many full-time workers in Maryland. If the assembly were to meet regularly throughout the year, there's no doubt the call would be on for increased salaries for state senators and delegates.

More importantly, however, is the reality that the legislative function in Maryland can be accomplished rather effectively in a 90-day session. Keep in mind that legislatures were designed not to be efficient, but rather to allow for discussion, compromise and reconsideration.

There's no good reason for expanding the session either through all-too frequent special sessions or by coming to the conclusion that proliferation of special sessions constitutes a good argument for a full-time legislature. Perhaps we should return to the days when the legislature met for just 30 days every other year.

Where the local delegation comes in, they would do the voters of Harford County and Maryland a service by ensuring the next legislative session concludes in April as scheduled, with no special session on the horizon to further cloud an already hazy state political landscape.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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