Md. special session hit as political theater

Details of tax package already settled?

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After discussing and debating the state’s finances behind closed doors for the past month, the Maryland General Assembly will convene Monday to start debating a revenue package during a special session.

Lawmakers will hold public hearings and consider amendments on a pair of bills meant to supplement the state’s budget largely by raising income taxes. But the details of the bills appear all but set in stone, having been finalized in recent weeks during closed-door negotiations among Democratic leaders who say the bills will likely pass with few or no changes.

House and Senate leaders say they did most of their work beforehand and gauged support within their chambers to ensure the special session will not drag beyond two or three days.

But some critics wonder whether the process has been too streamlined and kept too far from the public.

“It’s all for show,” said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Dorchester Republican. “They reached their agreements and they are adamant about having a session without controversy.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley and leading Democrats have said it was important to reach a relative consensus before a special session in order to prevent the bickering and drawn-out negotiations that forced the assembly to adjourn its regular session last month without passing two key revenue bills.

They have defended against criticism that the process has been too closed by pointing out that the special session’s revenue package is based largely on the two failed bills from the regular session, which were crafted after public hearings with months of public input and debate by committees and subcommittees.

They also say they want to avoid excessive costs from a special session, which state analysts have estimated could cost taxpayers more than $20,000 a day in staffing, lodging and administrative fees.

“We’re in sort of an extraordinary situation,” said Sen. William C. Ferguson IV, Baltimore Democrat. “There’s a delicate balance because there are a lot of senators like myself who see a special session as a cost to the citizens of Maryland and want it done as efficiently as possible.”

While the special session may be an extreme case, Maryland lawmakers often meet out of the public eye to discuss legislation, exchanging email or meeting in small groups.

They are only required to open meetings to the public if a majority of members of the assembly, a committee or caucus are gathered to discuss public business.

Mr. Ferguson, co-chairman of the assembly’s Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government, said that with thousands of bills during each year’s 90-day regular session, lawmakers typically don’t have enough time to get their work done strictly in public meetings and floor debates.

He said side discussions are often a necessity, although extra hearings and work sessions during the interim are sometimes an option.

Maryland officials have often done much of the work on important legislation behind closed doors, said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Mr. Eberly pointed specifically to last year’s congressional and legislative redistricting and said such private negotiations are made easier by the fact that Democrats control a clear majority in the state, allowing lawmakers to more willfully reach a consensus.

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