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First Click, Maryland: No open government today

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Monday, March 29, 2010:

The Agenda

Aaron.jpgWhat a difference a few weeks can make. When Maryland's General Assembly convened in January, one of the few certainties about this session seemed to be that there was overwhelming and bipartisan support to improve the state's antiquated open-government laws.

Before lawmakers began arriving in Annapolis, Del. Saqib Ali (D-Montgomery County) made headlines with a bill to put legislative committee votes online.

SaqibAli.jpgheather mizeur.jpgThen Del. Heather Mizeur, another Montgomery County Democrat, proposed an open-government overhaul after questioning the way Gov. Martin O'Malley made $1 billion in summertime budget cuts -- including the closing of a popular state psychiatric hospital -- with little public notice. Once session began, Republicans also got on board, offering their own ideas. And Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) even took the first step of publicizing committee votes without a new law requiring it.

It was Mizeur's bill in the House (and an identical one carried by Sen. Nancy J. King (D) in the Senate) that appeared to be the way the General Assembly would actually act on open government reform. A majority of lawmakers in both chambers signed on as co-sponsors, and the bills included a funding mechanism (increased fees on lobbyists) to pay for opening up meetings to the public by streaming them live on the Internet.

However, today, neither open-government bill is expected to make it out of a committee and onto a floor for a vote before the "crossover" deadline for the House and Senate to pass bills and send them to the opposite chamber.

Because the bills are being heard by their respective chambers' powerful rules committees, legislative maneuvers could still be employed to bring one or both to a vote before the General Assembly adjourns on April 12. But lawmakers and staffers close to the House Rules committee -- which key lawmakers in both chambers say should be first to act -- say there is hesitation to pass the bill as-is because they think it may be more appropriate to deal with many of the proposed reforms administratively than with a new law.

Some of those close to the committee say codifying anything about putting hearings online, for example, could be a bad idea because technology may change. Chairmen of some powerful committees have also told the Rules Committee they are concerned about a provision letting members of the public sign up online to testify on legislation because they fear it could lead to too many people attending hearings. Those close to the Rules Committees also say the state's current IT infrastructure could not handle some of the proposed reforms and so the matters may need to be studied further over the summer, after the General Assembly adjourns.

Proponents counter that the House Rules Committee has so far done nothing to try to work out a compromise and fear foot-dragging could doom open-government reform this year.

While it may be too soon to tell if proponents' fears are valid, some incidents in Annapolis since January would seem to raise questions about some powerful committee leaders' desire for change, as well as to continue to fuel public interest in reform. On same-sex marriage and some of the most controversial law-enforcement bills under consideration, members of the public have been forced to wait several hours or more before the bill that they traveled to the State House to testify on was called.

The cautiousness of the House Rules Committee regarding codifying online access to public hearings also runs counter to some federal efforts to put more information online.

If nothing else, by not passing either open-government bill on Monday, there will be irony to what, if any, reform gets passed this year. Open government will not get the same two weeks of final public vetting and debate afforded virtually every other piece of legislation.

-- Aaron C. Davis


News You Should Know

Rising GOP tide yet to bolster prospects in Maryland
O'Malley-Ehrlich debate.jpg"In Massachusetts, Republicans have claimed a Senate seat and are taking a run at the governor's mansion. In Illinois, they are gunning to grab the seat once held by President Obama and have their best chance in years to win a governor's race. In California, Connecticut, Delaware and the other bluest of the blue states, Republicans are also mounting strong challenges for statewide races that would be unthinkable in less friendly political climates. And then there's Maryland," writes The Post's John Wagner, in a story that looks at GOP prospects in the state in advance of the expected announcement of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun's Julie Bykowicz starts a Sunday profile of the candidate-in-waiting thusly: "Maryland's last governor, who followed two decades in elected office by opening a Baltimore branch of a law firm and hosting a radio talk show, is tired of life on the sidelines."

Kratovil splits with party out of calculation, conviction
Kratovil at mike.jpg"If it weren't obvious already, Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr.'s final vote against health-care legislation last week made clear that the freshman Maryland Democrat is more than willing to go against his party. He has sided with Republicans nearly 200 times since President Obama's approval ratings started to dip last summer, more than almost any other Democrat," writes The Post's Aaron C. Davis. "Kratovil's stances appear to be part conviction and part calculation, a bet that the only way he can represent and carry his right-leaning Eastern Shore district is to prove that he is an independent voice willing to oppose Obama and congressional Democrats when necessary."

State child support overhaul progresses
"Maryland's House of Delegates on Saturday passed a bill to overhaul the state's child support guidelines for the first time in more than 20 years, setting up a compromise battle with the Senate, which has passed a different version of the reform," Davis writes. "Both bills now working their way through the legislature would significantly increase child support payments required of noncustodial parents from newly split homes. But the House rejected a measure that could allow hundreds of thousands of parents who have custody to seek court-ordered increases to their current agreements. The Senate version would allow parents in October to begin petitioning for more money if the amount they could receive under the new guidelines would go up by 25 percent or more. The House bill would only apply to future child support arrangements, and it would not take effect until Oct. 2011."

Unemployment rises in state; BP closes Frederick solar plant
With jobs are the forefront of Maryland's governor's race, The Post's V. Dion Haynes writes: "Unemployment rates rose in Maryland and Virginia in February, according to government data released Friday, and economists attributed the increases to last month's heavy snowstorms, which closed schools, businesses and even the federal government. Virginia's jobless rate rose to 7.2 percent from 6.9 percent, and Maryland's rose to 7.7 percent from 7.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, "BP will close its solar-panel manufacturing plant in Frederick," writes The Post's Steven Mufson, noting that less than four years ago, a plan to double output at the facility was "widely hailed by Maryland officials and promoters of 'green jobs.' "

Maryland officials make census appeals in diverse settings
Leggett census.jpg"Cash-strapped local governments are issuing urgent pleas for [census] participation, because more than $400 billion -- by some accounts, more than $500 billion -- in federal funds are allotted annually based, at least partly, on census data," writes The Post's Carol Morello in a story that looks the push to count Latinos and other immigrants in Maryland and elsewhere.

Tax credit to benefit private schools gains momentum
"A long-sought measure that could channel millions of dollars in tax credits to struggling Catholic, Jewish and private schools is making inroads in the Maryland House of Delegates for the first time, in what would be a major shift of public money toward private education," writes The Post's Michael Birnbaum. "Proponents say the bill, which has failed twice before, would give tax credits to businesses that donate money for private school scholarships and public after-school programs, help keep schools open and make it easier for low-income students to attend private schools. But opponents say it is a back-door school voucher program that would rob public schools of funding at a time when budgets across the state and country are being slashed."

Week Ahead

Monday: The House of Delegates will hold a rare Monday morning floor session to vote on all of its bills before "crossover," today's deadline to send legislation to the Senate, and vice versa.

Thursday: The House is expected to begin floor debate on a proposed $32-billion spending plan. (UPDATED: Previous version of this post listed budget debate beginning on Wednesday).

Friday: House expected to take final budget vote.

-----

Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics. Each weekday, First Click brings you The Agenda, a concise, forward-looking analysis of the day's top development in politics or policy. "News You Should Know" breaks down top stories from across the state. And Look Ahead, Unspun, News Makers, and Week in Review keep you up to speed with power brokers in Annapolis and beyond. Want First Click on the go? Sign up for our free e-mail edition, and get the news delivered to your inbox or mobile device.

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By Aaron C. Davis  |  March 29, 2010; 5:45 AM ET
Categories:  Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner  
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Next: Political newcomer says he's in GOP primary for Md. governor to stay

Comments

The child support overhaul bills will massively increase child-support obligations based on false claims. Maryland child support levels are already too high.

Legislators should have voted down those child-support increase bills (HB 500 and SB 252). Too bad they approved them.

Legislators were wrong to increase child support obligations, as economists have noted. As one observer noted,

"Under the child support guidelines, child support already goes up along with income, since child support is based on income -- the higher your income, the higher your child support obligations. Child costs like toys are rising slower than costs in general."

At the following link is a lawyer's detailed explanation of why Maryland's child support schedule is too high already and doesn't need an increase:

www.examiner.com/x-7812-DC-SCOTUS-Examiner~y2010m2d5-Child-Support-Bill-Would-Increase-Already-Excessive-Obligations-Based-on-Erroneous-Rationale

The bills deliberately ignore actual child-rearing costs, especially for households with incomes over $10,000:

"The child support increase bill selectively ignores actual child costs, as its Fiscal and Policy Note unintentionally reveals. On page 3, it says, 'The Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee found that in applying current estimates of child-rearing expenditures across the board for all incomes, there was a higher percentage increase to incomes below $10,000 and a lower percentage increase to incomes above $10,000.' Yet, 'the committee applied the 'average' increase in award amounts for incomes below $10,000 to those incomes above $10,000.'"

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