- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Someone should call for a referendum to mandate fines for legislators who obviously don’t have clocks or calendars on their State House desks.

Last week, a one-day special session of the Maryland General Assembly was held in Annapolis because the state’s elected representatives could not figure out how to forestall an astronomical increase in electricity rates that they played a part in creating.

Over in Virginia, the deadlocked delegates and senators have been playing Southern fried chicken with each other for more than 150 days over a budget that doesn’t resolve the main sticking point — transportation funding — even after its long-overdue passage.

Are the General Assembly sessions too short for the legislative workload, or do the governors, senators and delegates spend too much time with political posturing rather than getting down to the business of their constituents? (Virginia legislators have a 60-day session in budget years, 45 days in non-budget years. Maryland legislators meet for 90 days each year.)

The traditional stipends for extended or special sessions grew out of a desire to help politicians balance their jobs with public service. But none was intended for delays as lengthy as we have seen in Virginia. It is time to revisit the “per diem” perks and practices.

It shouldn’t cost Maryland taxpayers more money to get their state senators and delegates in a room to decide what to do about rising utility rates. These pandering politicians didn’t do a thing last week that they couldn’t have done in April. And they still wound up postponing the inevitable.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — a Republican faced with only one formidable Democratic contender, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, now that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has dropped out — performed pathetically at a hastily called public hearing Tuesday before he decided to veto the legislature’s last-minute Band-Aid measure.

All do-nothings? All searching for political cover?

Meanwhile, motorists sit in sweltering heat on interstates and local highways wondering “how can I get out of this traffic?” at every stop and turn, all the while idling away precious liquid gold. You can even see the $3-a-gallon fumes from gas guzzlers, just burning up and polluting the hot air.

Will there be a subway tunnel under Tysons Corner? Will there be a third Potomac River crossing? Will the Intercounty Connector ever get built? Can we get through the Hampton Roads tunnel before the holiday weekend is over?

What do the good folks we pay in Annapolis and Richmond do to provide workable solutions to unchecked growth and traffic gridlock? They fight over political ideologies and principles while consumers pay for their backroom games and gimmicks.

The Virginia House and Senate could not agree on the source of revenue for much-needed transportation funding, so they adjourned March 11 without passing a mandatory two-year budget. The impasse created jitters on Wall Street, which could have jeopardized the state’s stellar bond rating. Worse, the General Assembly’s delay could have forced a government shutdown had they not acted before July 1.

Virginia’s special session this year, called by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, on March 27, has added 87 days to the regular session and could cost taxpayers as much as $20,000 a day, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

That breaks down to $5,750 for the 40-member state Senate and about $14,000 for the 100-member House of Delegates; both totals include some staff pay, the paper reported. The so-called “per diem” payment comes on top of the legislators’ salaries — $18,000 a year for senators, $17,640 for delegates.

That’s not a bad paycheck for a part-time gig. Members are entitled to collect a $130 daily overtime stipend, in part for mileage reimbursement, although some savvy reps have declined the payments in the past because of constituent pressure. Now is the time for constituents to apply more pressure.

Or Virginia taxpayers should consider asking for fines to be appropriated for the delayed appropriations. You have to pay a late fee for an overdue library book or video rental. Legislators should have to ante up when they have gone overtime, too.

No members have said whether they will decline the special allowance this year. Two years ago, when the Virginia General Assembly met for a then-unprecedented 115 days, just more than half of the House members either declined the money or donated it to charity. All the senators refused the daily stipend. They must follow suit again.

The ruling Democrats in Maryland and the ruling Republicans in Virginia didn’t demonstrably alter their legislation much more than they could have done within their normal deadline. The big difference in Richmond, however, is that the Republicans were fighting with Republicans. Now they have put their party, as well as the taxpayers’ thinner pocketbooks, in jeopardy as well with their unnecessary dueling.

Why do we pay our legislators in Maryland and Virginia extra stipends for each day they fail to do the state’s business within their allotted time? We shouldn’t.

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