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Md. government gets right what D.C. gets wrong

A recent edition of The Sun reported on several issues before the Maryland General Assembly. One related to medical malpractice. Another concerned the resale of entertainment and sports tickets. The lead editorial discussed the governor's proposed ethics legislation, and an op-ed opposed legislation to punish those who provide drugs leading to overdose death.

What struck me about these pieces was not so much the subjects themselves, fascinating though they were, but the democracy inherent in each of them. Competing interests — akin to the "factions" Madison observed in the Federalist Papers — stake out their positions in the context of a deliberative process designed to arbitrate them. In light of the overheated rhetoric, alternative facts and gridlock that characterize Washington politics, it's good to stop and appreciate the generally professional and rational nature of government here in the Free State.

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My career involved working three dozen state legislative sessions. In each year, up to 3,000 individual pieces of legislation were introduced, and every one had a public hearing; about a third passed in one form or another. Every year a balanced budget was approved (occasional slight of hand notwithstanding). Except for a rare special session, this was always done in 90 days. The 2017 session should be no different.

In my experience, issues in Annapolis were and continue to be decided more on their merits than their politics. Results are usually rooted in what will do the most public good or the least public harm. While there is a bit more partisanship today than in 1980, and the influence of money is greater, the vast majority of policy-makers still work hard to educate themselves about each issue before them and to balance conflicting interests for the good of the whole.

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This means being accessible to the various stakeholders. As a staffer for nonprofit organizations representing sometimes marginalized populations, I rarely felt that the process was less open to us than to more powerful interests. Whether through informal meetings or testimony at public hearings, we were as free as any other interest group to share our perspectives on what a bill or budget provision really means. In Annapolis, you get your day in court.

It also means creating forums for opposing interests to hear each other out and to seek agreement. This is usually done after the formal hearing process. Thoughtful leaders like Senate Finance Committee Chair Mac Middleton routinely organize work groups to bring all parties together toward compromise; more often than not, compromise is reached and the public's business is done.

Of course not everyone agrees on what constitutes the greatest good. In 2011, I was part of a coalition of health care advocates that convinced the legislature to pass a bill raising the alcohol tax to 9 percent from 6 percent. In the bill's original form, 15 percent of the proceeds were to go to public mental health services, 15 percent to addiction treatment and 15 percent to developmental disabilities services, among other health-related purposes. Over the session's final days, legislative leaders replaced the bill with one that directed almost all of the new revenue to school construction except for a one-time allocation for developmental disabilities. According to a news story at the time, money that should have expanded access to critical behavioral health care was instead used for artificial turf at two Howard County high schools.

In this case, policy-makers no doubt determined the public would be better served by directing the new revenue to education. I'm still bitter about it, but I understand it. (Meanwhile, mental health and addiction services remain underfunded, but that's another story.)

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Obviously the Maryland system isn't perfect. There are ethical lapses. Lobbyists serving moneyed interests do wield considerable influence. The good of the citizenry is not always honored. Worthy causes (see above) don't always rise to the proper priority level.

But by and large Maryland's process serves the public well. It's a functional democracy, and, as Winston Churchill purportedly said: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."

Herb Cromwell was executive director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland from 1980-1991 and of the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland from 1991-2015. His email is landhcromeagle@aol.com.

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