Competing good government bills on the way
When Maryland's General Assembly convenes next month, lawmakers will have to weigh competing good government bills authored by two Montgomery County delegates.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Takoma Park) has teamed up with Common Cause Maryland on a bill she says will make Annapolis and the work of state lawmakers more accessible to residents by letting Marylanders sign up online to testify on proposed legislation. Her bill would also require the state to broadcast key budget meetings over the Internet and publish legislative votes in near real-time -- and for free.
Mizeur says a much-publicized bill already filed by her colleague, Del. Saqib Ali (D-Gaithersburg), only tackles one aspect of what needs to be changed in Annapolis. Ali's Legislative Voting Sunshine Act would require lawmakers' committee votes to be posted on the General Assembly site. It also would apply to votes on amendments and motions related to bills that are taken during committee meetings.
Better record-keeping of lawmakers' committee votes, however, is only one of three areas Mizeur says need improvement. In addition to posting committee votes online, Mizeur wants the state's real-time system for tracking floor votes in the House and Senate opened to the public via the Internet.
Mizeur also says that given the state's condensed, 90-day legislative calendar, the public should be able to know about upcoming committee actions at least one day in advance and should be able to sign up online to testify in favor or against a bill, and then watch the proceedings online.
Thirdly, Mizeur says the public needs more useful and timely information about the Board of Public Works, an obscure three-member panel with vast powers.
"The public should have access to what lawmakers and government are doing," Mizeur said. "It's the State House, the people's house."
Maryland currently has an online legislative tracking system that provides near up-to-the-minute news about lawmaker's votes, but it's only accessible by lawmakers and some state workers, as well as lobbyists and a shrinking number of news organizations that can afford the $800 per-year fee.
Mizeur says events of the last few months have also crystallized the need to make the state's Board of Public Works more open to the public. The panel comprised of the governor, comptroller and treasurer is sometimes referred to as a "mini-legislature" because of its broad budgetary power when the General Assembly is out of session.
Since the legislature adjourned last spring, the three Democrats have approved more than $1 billion in cuts, transfers and other budget measures under the auspices of keeping Maryland's budget balanced in the face of increasingly dire predictions about shrinking tax revenue. Combined, the board's actions more than doubled the amount of budget cuts approved by the General Assembly last session. Those cuts rarely were preceded by the level of public scrutiny that would have been common had they been passed as part of the legislature's budget process.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) sometimes presented the proposed cuts publicly to reporters about 24 hours before he asked Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D) to go along with the measures.
Other times, including last month, however, details of hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts were circulated only privately to Franchot's and Kopp's offices the night before the meeting, and specific cuts only were made public after the meeting began. Dozens of cuts were approved without public discussion.
Other times, they were approved with only two of the three members' votes. Last month, for example, O'Malley and Kopp alone decided the fate of an Eastern Shore psychiatric hospital. They voted to close the Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center over the objections of Franchot -- as well as those of Mizeur and other lawmakers, who requested the board defer the decision to the General Assembly.
Mizeur says many of those troubled by the process that led to the hospital's closing support her bill.
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