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Mr. Brown gets a reprieve [Editorial]

It doesn't take a doctor to diagnose Fix-is-in Disease, the condition common to politicians who look out for favored individuals. In the recent outbreak in Annapolis, the warning signs are too painfully obvious for most anyone to ignore.

Last week, the chairmen to the two committees with oversight of Maryland's woeful health care exchange announced they'll wait for state auditors to look into the matter this summer rather than proceeding with their own investigation during the current legislative session. That's a decision that must have brought a smile to the face of gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the man in charge of implementing the exchange (although not necessarily really, truly in charge), who now won't have to face more embarrassing questions about it until after the June Democratic primary — or even the general election in November.

Certainly, it's not unusual for lawmakers to defer to the auditors within the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, and their work is widely regarded as reliable and non-partisan. We're sure they'll conduct a thorough, objective review. But the position taken by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton that to not holding hearings would give exchange officials more time to do their jobs is curiously at odds with what legislative leaders said a few weeks ago.

Back then, there were statements made about how the "buck stops here" or that hearings would continue until every legislator's questions were fully answered. Why the sudden change in heart? According to Senator Middleton, it's because there's been no evidence uncovered of criminal wrongdoing.

That may be true, but Maryland's $107 million exchange had one of the most troubled launches in the country. It's been a huge embarrassment, not only for the lieutenant governor, but for Gov. Martin O'Malley, the General Assembly and the people of this state. At last reckoning, less than one-fifth of the 150,000 people expected to sign up for private health insurance through the exchange by the end of next month have actually done so.

So why so little curiosity about what went wrong and why, at least beyond last month's initial hearings? It's just too easy to draw the line from the legislature's Democratic leadership to the candidate they, and a majority of the Democrats in the General Assembly, have already endorsed to be Maryland's next governor. Whether this is really a matter of favoritism or not, the appearance of it is just overwhelming.

Obviously, it's not been lost on the other candidates running for governor who are none too pleased about it. Frankly, the best idea we've heard so far is from Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley who called for an independent probe. That was good enough for the Democrats when they weren't happy with hiring and firing practices in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nine years ago, and the same standard ought to apply today.

One can argue the reverse — that conducting legislative hearings would only serve Mr. Brown's political opponents — but while that's true in theory, it's also a bit hard to swallow. Frankly, nobody is going to believe Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch are out to embarrass the lieutenant governor, their preferred candidate for governor, or that House and Senate chairmen would permit some witch hunt.

Moreover, we don't actually know what share of the blame Mr. Brown deserves for how things turned out. Perhaps he was incompetent, but perhaps he was the one person who kept things from being worse. Maybe he wasn't really that involved at all. We don't have the answer, but it certainly seems like material information for voters to know before they decide whether to elect Mr. Brown to run the entire state.

Moments like this lend credence to the Republican Party's perennial complaint that Maryland's status as a one-party state with Democrats in charge of all statewide offices and with hefty majorities in both legislative houses is antithetical to good government. Republicans have no say in this, none. So what check is there on Democratic power?

This isn't all about Mr. Brown. This is also about whether incumbent lawmakers can be trusted to look out for the public and not just their own (or their allies') political self-interest. Like it or not, this is the conclusion most people will draw — Democrats have cut an inquiry short in deference to their favored candidate for governor. And they're probably correct.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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