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Question 1: Vote 'for’ constitutional amendment on state budget authority | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan offers a preview of his proposed state budget during a State House news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Keiffer Mitchell Jr., an aide now serving as acting chief of staff, stands left. The $48 billion spending plan was eventually approved by the General Assembly which also passed a proposed constitutional amendment to give lawmakers more direct authority over state spending priorities.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan offers a preview of his proposed state budget during a State House news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Keiffer Mitchell Jr., an aide now serving as acting chief of staff, stands left. The $48 billion spending plan was eventually approved by the General Assembly which also passed a proposed constitutional amendment to give lawmakers more direct authority over state spending priorities. (Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun)

As happens in every state, members of the Maryland General Assembly have long grappled with governors, Democratic and Republican, over how state government should be spending tax dollars. But unlike other states, lawmakers go into this battle with fewer weapons. In simplest terms, Maryland state senators and delegates have the authority to cut the state budget but not to add money or even reallocate spending. This proposed amendment to the state Constitution would alter that balance of power to give lawmakers a bigger say — but with an important check: The governor would, in return, have the power of a line-item veto so that spending the executive saw as wasteful or unnecessary could advance only with a three-fifths override vote from the state legislature. Nor could legislators increase overall spending; they’d still have to approve a balanced budget (unlike their counterparts in Congress).

For these reasons, we urge a vote “for” the proposed constitutional amendment that would go into full effect in the next gubernatorial term beginning in Fiscal 2024 and put Maryland in line with budget practices in the 49 other states.

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Maryland’s limits on legislative budget authority operated on the premise that it was better to put more of the decision-making in the hands of the head of the executive branch. Who better, or so the thinking went, to decide how agencies should spend their money than the head of government? Over the years, particularly in the last several decades, this division of labor has become muddled. The General Assembly can fence off portions of the budget. It can pass spending mandates that legally require the governor to spend money on certain things. It can create so-called “lockboxes” and dedicated special funds where revenues can only be spent for certain purposes. In other words, what Maryland has now is a complicated and often unwieldy mess. And the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted these workaround entanglements that allow lawmakers to reallocate but ultimately reduce much-needed budgetary flexibility. Want to temporarily spend less on land acquisition so that Maryland families won’t go hungry in the middle of an economic downturn? What should be a simple transfer is constrained by a morass of rules, regulations and laws that must be peeled back like layers of an onion.

Yet we have always been leery of giving lawmakers too much authority to fund pet projects, to change votes by offering financial incentives (support my unrelated bill and there’s a new school building in your district’s future) and similar legislative chicanery. That’s why it’s so essential that the amendment also gives whomever serves as governor explicit line-item veto power. The governor sees an abuse of budget authority? Make the full legislature vote on that specific item. Sunlight is a reliable disinfectant. And so it the requirement that at least 60% of each chamber vote to override the veto. Whatever happens, it’s out in the open and voters can then draw what conclusions they may from these public actions.

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It should be noted that similar proposals have failed to win legislative support in the past. There are a number of reasons for this not the least of which is that Maryland’s current complex system often helped leadership keep members in line. Untangling the complexities of the budget was not something easily undertaken without leadership’s nod. And it also helped that Maryland has generally had the same party controlling the executive branch as the legislative branch. There was always room for negotiation — even, incidentally, when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland’s first Republican governor in almost 40 years, was elected in 2002. The former congressman and state delegate may have clashed ideologically with Democratic leaders in Annapolis, but he could be persuaded. Maryland’s current governor has proven to be less given to deal-making and generally less personally engaged on matters of budget and fiscal policy. When Democratic lawmakers set aside money for a worthy purpose, Gov. Larry Hogan is often prone to sitting on it, refusing to allow agencies to spend the money budgeted for some purpose other than what he’d originally intended.

That’s likely why legislators split almost entirely down party lines when the budget amendment was considered in the House of Delegates and Senate earlier this year. Democrats were for it; Republicans against — even though the measure, at least theoretically, increased the clout of all legislators in the budgetary process. Such partisanship is not surprising in these polarized times, but it is still misplaced. At worst, the measure only slightly reduces the clout of future governors while maintaining the all-important cap on spending. Meanwhile, it helps bring transparency and less red tape to a budget process that is embarrassingly murky and convoluted. Thus, Governor Hogan’s obstinacy, his rejection of legislative spending priorities, may prove a good thing if it ultimately leads to this overdue reform.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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