6 Howard lawmakers would make referendum petition drives easier

Baltimore Sun

State legislation this year to make referendum petition drives easier would likely get support from six General Assembly members from Howard County who appeared at a League of Women Voters luncheon, though only one legislator said she'd favor making any change retroactive.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo said she'd favor retroactivity in answer to a question from Marc Norman, a Turf Valley development critic whose attempt to recall a County Council zoning change allowing a larger supermarket there was disqualified last year by the county election board.

A December 2008 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling reaffirmed Maryland's strict legal standard for signatures on petitions, forcing election officials to disqualify thousands of names gathered under a long-used looser practice for determining their validity. Under current law, a signature must exactly match what is on a voter registration card, must also exactly match the printed name on the petition, or must include a registered voter's address and birth date if a first name, last name and middle initial are used. Norman is also seeking court relief.

At the Bethany United Methodist Church luncheon Jan. 9 in Ellicott City, all three county state senators and three delegates, including Democrats Guy Guzzone and Bobo and Republican Warren E. Miller, said they support the idea of loosening the rules to prevent technicalities from eliminating valid signatures, though no specific bill has emerged. The county's five other delegates did not attend the annual event.

"I think we need to do something, but I'm not sure what that is," said state Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat. Republican Allan H. Kittleman agreed, saying, "I would support petition change." State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Senate majority leader, said he was "disappointed, frankly" that an emergency bill he sponsored last March to accomplish the reform died in committee, despite expressions of leadership support. That bill included a retroactivity clause.

"The committee chairs told me they would pass it, but they didn't," he said. Later, after Norman asked about retroactivity, Kasemeyer said he didn't think that would win approval of the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and no one but Bobo endorsed the concept.

If a bill is enacted, it would likely take effect too late to affect the rules for the 2010 election, which means a potential referendum campaign to defeat County Council approval of downtown Columbia rezoning after a Feb. 1 scheduled vote would have to use the current strict standard.

Morning after, night beforeAs a liberal Democrat, Guzzone doesn't share much philosophically with conservative Republican Miller, but they do share one thing: a need for campaign cash.

That's why Guzzone stood among dozens of shiny BMW motorcycles the evening of Jan. 7 toasting supporters in an unusual political setting. The next morning, Miller raked in his pre-General Assembly session cash at a Turf Valley breakfast, where anti-tax activist Grover Norquist held sway over those eager enough to brave the snow.

State legislators are barred from raising funds during the 90-day session that began Wednesday, and since this is an election year, both Howard delegates felt the need to scratch that old political itch.

Norquist told Miller's guests that voters registered as independents often don't pay close attention to politics until election time and only superficially consider issues. Many are now shocked to find that Democrats like President Barack Obama are spending lots of money, he said.

"They follow politics like I follow professional sports. They're vaguely aware it goes on," and they just "look up" at election times. But last year, the head of Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform said, "spending per se became an issue that motivates people." The strong public reaction surprised him, he said, because he thought the anger wouldn't come until spending produced more tax increases. Republicans should use the spending issue, Norquist said.

"Spending is what matters, not the deficit," he said, adding that Democrats would rather talk about the deficit so they can push for higher taxes. "The voter is always right because the voter has the vote and we want to get it," he advised. "Our job is to say no tax increases and to force tax restraint."

But Jeff Robinson, a candidate for state delegate in Guzzone's district, asked if that would work in Maryland because "I don't know that Marylanders recognize that spending is a problem," since the emphasis here is on reduced tax revenues from the recession. "Focus on spending," Norquist advised.

Miller stuck to that theme, accusing Maryland Democrats of "reckless spending" that ignored the deepening recession, resulting in a projected $2 billion revenue shortfall.

Guzzone's event was much more lighthearted, though the former county councilman did fleetingly address the Republican complaints.

Senior Ulman administration officials Jessica and Josh Feldmark helped tend the eats and drinks from behind the parts counter at the gleaming Bob's BMW showroom in Jessup while lawyers, developers, other politicians and just plain folks ogled the new and old machines, including a restored black 1963 BMW R69S selling for a mere $16,995.

Guzzone said that store owner Bob Henig is a friend and neighbor, which explained the venue that attracted about 60 people who paid at least $100 a head.

"There's a lot of noise out there," Guzzone told the crowd, referring to criticism aimed at Democrats. "I continue to be optimistic, and we have a great community. I hear naysayers talk about trouble," he said, "but we continue to make investments in our county - in things like education and the environment."

After the event, Guzzone said Republican criticisms don't make sense in Maryland or in Howard County.

"Is this a great place to live? Are the schools great? The libraries? The parks? I just keep looking at my neighbors and asking if we're producing value for the money they're spending. In Howard we're producing," he said. On the state level, Maryland's schools are considered the best in the nation and bond-rating agencies have praised Maryland's fiscal practices. Even with the recession, Maryland is doing better than many other states, he said.

Miller's event drew about 45 people in the light snow, though 88 had signed up to come, according to his treasurer.

Unofficial County Council candidate Robert L. Flanagan, a former delegate and state transportation secretary under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also attended and handed out fliers for his own Jan. 30 fundraiser at Savage Mill.

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