Holding up gay marriage bill helps no one

Del. Jill P. Carter has taken it upon herself to hold up legislation to legalize gay marriage in Maryland, not because she opposes it but because she wants to draw more attention to two other causes: a divorce custody bill she is sponsoring and an effort to restore education funding. She is right to point out that the legislature is considering other issues than gay marriage, but she was wrong to walk out of a Judiciary Committee voting session Tuesday and demand that legislative leaders fast-track those other issues before she would cast a potentially decisive vote to send the marriage bill to the full House of Delegates for consideration. In doing so, she brought disrepute not just on herself but on the entire effort to enact this important legislation.

Her action reduces a question about fundamental human rights — legislation she co-sponsored — to petty horse trading. What had been ennobling about the debate over this issue so far had been the sincerity of arguments advanced on both sides, but Ms. Carter has chosen to put political expediency ahead of the interests of thousands of Marylanders and her own avowed beliefs, and she is acting as if that is a virtue. She cheapens the honest and difficult decisions her fellow legislators have made.

There is no question that legislative leaders should not and will not accede to her demands. They cannot negotiate with a hostage-taker. Sadly, that could, indeed, give her the power to scuttle the bill. But she should think very carefully before doing that. It may give her a fleeting moment of power, but it will do nothing to advance her goals and will instead relegate her forever to political infamy.

Delegate Carter says she is concerned about two issues: funding for Baltimore City and Prince George's County schools, and a bill she has pushed for several years to create a rebuttable presumption that judges should grant joint custody in divorce cases.

Ms. Carter is upset that her custody bill has failed so far to get an up-or-down vote. Very well, but the legislation is not a good idea. Joint custody is the ideal outcome in a divorce, and most of the time, that's what happens, usually without the matter having to go before a judge. But the problem with making a presumption in favor of it in those cases that do wind up in court is that joint custody works best when the parents are able to communicate effectively and work together in the best interests of the child — and that is often not the case in divorces that are so fiercely contested that they require a judge to determine custody arrangements.

The reduced funding this year for Baltimore City and Prince George's County schools is something that has already brought together a high-powered coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups, though the question of what to do about it is a complicated one. Overall funding for K-12 education is flat in Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal, but some counties — including Montgomery — wound up with more money, and some jurisdictions got less. That's because education funding is distributed to the counties based on formulas that take into account enrollment, poverty, the number of special needs students and other factors.

Baltimore City and Prince George's County have, in general, benefited greatly from those formulas since the Thornton education plan was enacted in 2002, but they come out less well this year, in part because places like Montgomery County are less wealthy than they used to be. Eliminating the cuts — which amount to $15 million in Baltimore, or about 1.2 percent of the system's $1.23 billion budget — would mean either monkeying with the formulas or adding a much larger amount of money to the overall pool.

That is a difficult task, politically and fiscally, and it will require the building of a coalition of lawmakers from across the state, plus the governor, and that is not something that can be rushed. It takes careful consideration as part of the budget process, and that is what it's receiving. If anything, moving the divisive issue of gay marriage through the legislature only increases the chances for success.

But it is exactly that kind of effort that could not succeed if everyone behaved as Ms. Carter has on gay marriage. If legislators viewed every bill as an opportunity for leverage, nothing would ever get done: not gay marriage, not funding for schools and not changes to Maryland custody law. Delegate Carter has succeeded in bringing attention to her favored issues, but if she persists in this tactic, it will only hurt her cause.

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