Voters approve transportation lockbox, executive special elections

Md. voters are expected to approve transportation lock box, special executive elections.

Maryland voters made it more difficult for governors and lawmakers to raid funds designated for road and bridge repairs by approving a constitutional amendment to put those funds in a "lockbox."

Also approved at the ballot box Tuesday: a measure giving local jurisdictions the right to hold special elections to fill vacant executive posts. Such elections could have been triggered by the scandal-driven departures of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold.

The lockbox amendment, proposed as Question 1 on voters' ballots, bans diversions from the state's $4.6 billion Transportation Trust Fund without the governor declaring a fiscal emergency and approval from a three-fifths' supermajority of both General Assembly chambers.

The General Assembly decided last year to put the measure to voters when it raised the state's gas tax for the first time in two decades.

The trust fund is financed with revenue from the gas tax, vehicle registration fees, titling taxes and other sources. It pays for items that include highways and mass transit.

Diversions from the trust fund — which have occurred to balance the state budget under every governor since Harry Hughes in the 1980s — have largely been repaid. But the issue has been politicized in recent years.

Some lawmakers in Annapolis said they supported the gas tax increase on the condition that the lockbox amendment be put to voters.

A broad coalition of business groups, unions and transit advocates supported the constitutional amendment, though critics said it still doesn't do enough to protect the trust fund in a state where Democrats hold a significant advantage in the legislature.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Comptroller Peter Franchot joined members of that coalition this week to urge voters not to ignore the ballot question at the polls and to dismiss the critics.

Miller emphasized that it would be difficult to secure a three-fifths' supermajority in both houses to be able to tap the trust fund for other purposes. "That is an ungodly amount of votes," he said. "It would need to be an extreme, extreme emergency."

The special elections amendment, proposed as Question 2 on voters' ballots, clears the way for local jurisdictions to pass laws to allow special elections when an executive seat is vacated.

The issue has resonated in areas where leaders have taken office through ascension or appointment rather than election, including in Baltimore where the last two mayors — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Sheila Dixon — initially took office after ascending automatically from the City Council presidency.

Dixon became mayor when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected governor, and Rawlings-Blake became mayor when Dixon resigned as part of a plea deal to end a years-long corruption investigation.

In Anne Arundel, County Executive Laura Neuman was appointed last year by the County Council after Leopold was convicted of misconduct in office. Neuman lost the Republican primary race to Del. Steve Schuh in June.

Special elections can cost more than $1 million in larger jurisdictions, according to a legislative analysis, and some local politicians expressed skepticism about the expense and process.

A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who would automatically become mayor were Rawlings-Blake to leave office prematurely, has said the current process has "served the citizens well."

With passage of the amendment, city and county councils are now free to introduce legislation creating an executive branch special election process, but are not required to do so.

krector@baltsun.com

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