Voters face difficult decisions this election season

Fall voting season has arrived, culminating in the Nov. 4 general election.

Early voting started last week and continues, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., until Oct. 30 at the Agricultural Center on Shawan Road, the Hannah More Senior Center in Reisterstown and the Randallstown Community Center.


The main event happens next Tuesday when most registered voters will show up to decide who moves into the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis.

Nearly all the other offices on the ballot are pretty much decided in Baltimore County. The real action centers on Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan Jr., who are in a tight race for Maryland's top post.


Voters also will find two ballot questions they've been asked to decide.

One deals with a technical change in the state constitution allowing Baltimore County and Baltimore City, as well as other charter jurisdictions, to fill vacancies in the office of mayor or county executive by special election.

Right now, the county administrator — an appointed position — automatically assumes Baltimore County's top post if a vacancy occurs. This amendment lets county voters decide at a later date if they want a change.

The other ballot question is designed to tie the hands of the governor.

It creates a "lockbox" for Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund so the money can only be spent on transportation projects — even if the state's economic situation is dire.

There is an escape clause, but it would take an extraordinary three-fifths vote in the legislature before the governor could tap into the trust fund to save priority programs, such as aid to education, medical assistance and environmental protection.

In future decades it might be virtually impossible to produce a super-majority of that magnitude in the legislature.

That could cause big trouble.

If the governor can't shift transportation money to pressing priorities — like school aid — during a recession, what's he or she going to do?

He'll have to make painful reductions in state assistance to Baltimore County schools, and every other Maryland school system.

He'll have to slash aid to the county's health department and the county's social services department.

He might have to lay off thousands of workers and reduce payments to the state pension program.


All that could be avoided if the governor retained the power to shift transportation dollars to far more pressing programs during hard economic times.

Lawmakers in Annapolis approved this constitutional amendment because Gov. Martin O'Malley too often dipped into the transportation fund to balance his budget.

O'Malley avoided tough choices this way, but he alarmed lawmakers as revenue declined for road, port, transit and airport projects.

Yet the legislature's remedy to O'Malley's shifting of transportation funds may lead to a worse situation.

The chief executive of any large business — even the CEO of Maryland's $40 billion a year state government — needs maximum budget flexibility.

Denying the governor that maneuvering room puts Maryland in a fiscal straitjacket during downturns when tax revenue declines dramatically.

It could lead to the absurd situation in which Maryland's road and transit projects charge full-steam ahead during a recession while the counties lay off teachers, cut health and environmental services and consider raising local taxes.

Giving the governor budget flexibility makes sense. Sheltering transportation funds elevates those projects to untouchable status — unlike aid for schools and health care.

That skews the state's priorities.

This constitutional amendment is far too restrictive. It could boomerang, creating a dangerous predicament for a future governor.

There's got to be a better way.

Barry Rascovar's blog is http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at barascovar@hotmail.com.

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