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Marylanders get a taste of veto democracy

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Marylanders will soon have an opportunity common in a country other than their own: the right to veto a legislature's product. This tool, the voter referendum, is an important right, since two cure-alls of the 1970s, campaign finance "reform" and strict reapportionment, have delivered the legislature into the hands of reliable partisans and the "bundlers" of interest-group campaign contributions.

The referendum is not to be confused with the initiative — California's gift to misgovernment — nor with ad hoc plebiscites, a traditional tool of dictators. It has served the Swiss well.

At the instance of an over-ambitious governor, Maryland voters will confront four laws. The casino bill and congressional redistricting are striking manifestations of what a notable federal judge recently called "the culture of corruption in Annapolis." Gay marriage and the Dream Act are exercises in "culture warfare" and partisan pandering — trivial in themselves, but of un-discussed larger import.

The casino amendment's flaws are well advertised, but two should be noted. It shreds the constitutional prohibitions of monopolies and of lottery grants, both of which grew out of 19th century experience with the gambling industry, confirmed by more recent episodes of race-track corruption. The favoritism in tax rates accorded David Cordish, developer of the Maryland Live casino, proceeds on the strange premise that he must be compensated for the diminution in value of a state-granted monopoly. Even stranger is the revolution in alcohol policy wrought by the associated legislation: Lest the habitués of gambling policies be in occasional possession of their faculties, there is to be 24-hour alcohol service at the casinos in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. So much for Maryland's tradition of local legislation on liquor control, the way Governor Ritchie reconciled "wets" and "dries" after Prohibition. It is safe to predict that the new dispensation will not long be confined to slots emporia.

The congressional redistricting bill has as its principled purpose ensuring that Maryland's Republicans, a third of the electorate, will never elect more than one of eight congressmen. Its method is the creation of what Professor Royce Hanson once called "neighborhoods of strangers and jurisdictions without traditions," ideal political terrain for celebrities and self-financed millionaire candidates. Its target is Roscoe Bartlett. Mr. Bartlett, along with the recently purged Wayne Gilchrest, was one of exactly four Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose the attempted impairment of the writ of habeas corpus by the Military Commissions Act. He was excluded during the Gingrich Congress from environment committees because of his declared purpose to follow science wherever it led. There will be no more of his kind. In his place, we are to have a self-financed candidate whose platform on domestic — and, more alarmingly, foreign policy — issues reads like an anthology of the demands of interest groups.

There is also the gay marriage law, on which Governor O'Malley, along with several of the more easily influenced Democratic legislators, underwent a Damascene conversion, liberally lubricated by campaign contributions. This bill is not just about love; why love cannot be adequately expressed by a civil union ceremony is unexplained. The guilty secret of the proponents is that the bill is also about money: Justifiable demands for health insurance and sexual privacy have morphed in barely two years into a treasury raid.

Marriage has few financial consequences in state law, but joint filing and its lower rates are important in the federal tax code. If the Defense of Marriage Act falls to attacks in the courts and by the Obama administration, couples who usually do not raise children will be admitted to the same tax privileges as those who usually do. Certainly there are exceptions to both rules, but legislation can never be perfect. It announces general rules which many regard as guides to what is expected of them in life, and whose erosion is apt to be resented by those who have complied with them. The demands of other same-sex pairs living together (e.g. post-college roommates, elderly siblings) are not likely to be far behind those of gays; the end result is likely to be a regime in which "marriage for all will be marriage for none."

Joint tax filings will be ended, followed at some distance by the tax-motivated death of marriage on the Scandinavian pattern, which results when there are no joint rates but a "marriage penalty" resulting from progressive taxation. There are large consequences from a small change, particularly if one remembers that most regulations of marriage have as their foundation concern with the welfare of the young. The French, not illiberal in such matters, have concluded that gay marriage, as distinct from civil unions, is a bridge too far.

It took six years for Governor O'Malley to pass the Dream Act, which confers in-state tuition rates on an exotic class of immigrants who are a) undocumented b) have attended Maryland high schools for three years and have graduated c) have registered for selective service and have applied for permanent residence d) have parents who have paid income taxes for the preceding three years e) lack criminal records; f) notwithstanding these qualifications, are willing to spend two years in purgatory at a community college even if accepted at a four-year college, and g) whose education is not interrupted in the meantime by the federal government's ever-fluctuating and equally politically motivated enforcement policies. The proponents of the legislation claim that there are as many as 435 such persons in each year's age cohort. Though a gift to immigration lawyers, the legislation is not a serious approach to the perversities of the nation's immigration policy.

For that, we must look to the Utah Compact, the product of an agreement between a Republican governor and the Catholic and Mormon churches. Under it, the state forswears enforcement of federal immigration laws save against those probably guilty of serious crime, and issues guest-worker permits to migrants who have avoided crime, made a documented effort to learn English, and who have at least rudimentary major-medical health insurance policies. Predictably, this serious effort embodied in four state laws has been assailed by nativists, tea partiers, immigrant rights groups and the Obama administration, but it is not an empty gesture. The principal effect of the governor's empty gesture is to advertise the state as a haven for benefit migrants. This Maryland does not need, particularly when its tax policies and de-coupling from federal capital gains, qualified dividend and estate tax deductions and exclusions render the state almost uniquely repulsive to well-heeled migrants, immigrant and native.

These measures are fueled by corruption and/or overweening ambition. Marylanders should vote against them.

George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer. His email is info@calvertinstitute.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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