Senate Panel Considers Constitutional Amendment to Expand Power of the Purse ― Again

The Maryland State House in spring. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Does Maryland’s legislature have enough power of the purse? Some senators think not ― but is 2020 the right year for this particular fiscal fight?

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee is debating a proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would grant the General Assembly the power to move funding around the state budget. Under rules in place for more than a century, Maryland legislatures have been limited in their budgetary power. Lawmakers can reduce or eliminate appropriations from governors’ proposed budgets, but generally cannot increase funding for programs (at least not without creating a corresponding new revenue source).

“This is about balancing the state budget in two ways: making sure that it’s fiscally balanced, but also balanced between the responsibility of the governor and the responsibility of the legislature,” Budget and Taxation Vice-Chairman James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) said at a hearing last week.

He’s sponsoring the perennially proposed constitutional amendment this year, along with a half-dozen Democratic members of his committee.

The Maryland General Assembly is the most-constrained legislature in the country when it comes to influencing a state’s budget.

This proposed constitutional amendment, if it were approved by the Maryland voters in a November ballot referendum, would allow lawmakers to increase, decrease and move money around in the budget, subject to the overall cap in the budget the governor presents.

It’s the 12th time since 2000 that such a bill has been under consideration by the committee. In the early 2000s, the proposed amendment saw a string of successes in escaping committee, only to fail to garner an elusive three-fifths majority required for proposed constitutional amendments on the Senate floor.

Then-Senator Patrick “P.J.” Hogan, who is now a registered lobbyist in Annapolis, led those fights.

At a bill hearing last week, in which he made clear he was speaking strictly for himself, Hogan pressed the issue again.

Hogan and Rosapepe argued that the state’s current limits have created budgetary gobbledygook in the form of fenced-off funds, set-asides, mandates and Budget Reconciliation and Financing Acts. Oftentimes, the funding goals of both the Legislature and executive are thwarted when, for example, fenced-off funding is never spent.

Rosapepe said the current budget maneuvers create conflict where it doesn’t need to exist. He’s also argued that giving the Legislature more power to move funding around would allow lawmakers to bring the voices of constituents into the budget debate more efficiently. For example, it’s hard for a single person to get the ear of the governor to make a change to a line in a budget that’s drafted under executive privilege, but that person may be able to grab the attention of a locally elected senator or delegate.

“Lest anyone think this is a partisan issue, it’s not,” P.J. Hogan said last week. “This has been sponsored by and voted for by Rs and Ds.”

When he left the Senate, the push on the amendment was picked up by current Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley, a Republican.

Hogan said one of the greatest minds when it comes to state legislatures was the late Alan Rosenthal, who headed the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.

Rosenthal testified on the bill one year and, according to Hogan, told lawmakers: “If you all would like to remain the weakest Legislature in the country, do not pass this bill.”

“I don’t know what else to say. I’ve said it for 20 years,” Hogan said last week after yet-another impassioned argument for the bill.

“Someday this will pass,” the lobbyist shrugged as he got up from the witness table.

“Today is the day!” Rosapepe cheered from the head of the committee table.

Not quite.

Tuesday could have been that day, as the committee took up the bill during an afternoon voting session. But after hands were raised and the measure seemed to be headed to the Senate floor ― with the committee’s four Republican members opposed ― there came a snag.

“This is going to be a constitutional amendment. It’s going to mess up the ballot,” Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) piped up.

Attention turned to another un-related Hogan: Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

If he wanted to, the governor could use the proposed ballot question to rouse opposition from his base during the presidential election, Miller opined.

“It’s going to be like Hogan versus the Legislature,” he said.

Committee members paused.

“Let’s think about this for a minute, though. What does this do to the ballot?” Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) pondered.

Miller continued that he personally liked the bill, but then embarked on a history lesson.

“There were times in the past where the Legislature acted very irresponsibly. And the checks and balances were put in place by a commission chaired by the president of Johns Hopkins University,” Miller said.

Budget and Taxation Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard) interjected: “It was 1914, wasn’t it?”

“It was about that time. It was,” Miller responded.

In 1914, the General Assembly overspent the state’s funds by about 8%, a financial disaster. The Goodnow Commission ultimately crafted a Constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 1916, that established the spending limits still in place today.

“Is this the year we want to do it? Is there ever a good year?” King asked about changing the provision. “I don’t know. Though I agree with the bill.”

Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery) noted that the amendment wouldn’t take effect until after Hogan’s tenure as governor.

Rosapepe said he respected the concerns ― practical and political ― of his fellow committee members, but believed passing the bill was the right thing to do.

“Given that it does not in any way change the ability of the governor to limit the amount of money that is spent in a year, I can’t conceptualize how it could possibly create the problems that they saw in 1914,” Rosapepe said. “I’m for a balanced budget. This keeps a balanced budget.”

After all the hand-wringing, Guzzone decided to hold the bill until a future voting session for further discussion ― and possible amendments.

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