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Maryland gets high marks on estimating cost of legislation

Maryland lawmakers may or may not propose wiser bills than those in other states, but they receive solid information about their costs, according to a study released this week.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a well-known Washington think tank, said Maryland is one of only five states to follow all of the "best practices" for informing lawmakers about the costs of the legislation they propose.

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The report focuses on a vital part of the legislative process that is well-known to insiders but not to the public -- the preparation of "fiscal notes" on bills.

Fiscal notes give lawmakers estimates of the costs of proposed laws. In Maryland, preparing such notes for the General Assembly is the job of analysts at the officially nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.

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The study finds that some state legislatures are essentially flying blind on the budget implications of the policies they set. A dozen states do not even prepare costs estimates on all bills.

Maryland's the department not only meets that best practice, but earns top marks for the way it goes about its job, the report says.

The study found that Maryland legislative analysts:

--Are free from partisan pressure when preparing their report.

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--Project long-term as well as the immediate budget impacts of proposals.

--Revise their projections when bills are substantially amended.

--Post their fiscal notes online.

Besides Maryland, only four states and the District of Columbia meet all those criteria, the report said.

The study's authors contended that such practices are critical for making sound policy.

"Lack of information can cause legislators to enact proposals that cause serious fiscal problems, harming states' ability to provide for the high-quality education systems, roads and bridges, and other public investments that provide a foundation for strong economic growth," the report says.  "For example, the cost of new programs or tax changes may turn out to exceed the state's ability to pay, causing unnecessary fiscal stress."

One of the report's findings is the subject of partisan disagreement. While the legislative services  agency is legally nonpartisan, Hogan administration spokesmen have complained that its estimates are sometimes tainted by partisan bias because of the legislature's domination by Democrats.

Warren Deschenaux, executive director of the legislative services department, said it was good to have his impressions confirmed by the study.

"We have an excellent staff that does our fiscal and policy notes," he said, pointing to how often they are discussed during floor debates.

"Over the past several years, the fiscal component of legislation has been of tremendous importance because the budgetary situation has been extra tight," he said.

Deschenaux deflected criticism of his agency's independence.

"We do our best to serve every member of the General Assembly and respond to their requests and needs," he said.

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