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In Annapolis, what's old is new again

January 27, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

Ah, what a blast from the past: Capital punishment, gun bans, container taxes — legislation that hadn’t been seriously heard from in Annapolis for 20 years.

Verily, those were issues before the General Assembly when I was covering the lawmaking fun back in the early ’90s.

So why and how has the liberal-issue band gotten back together after all these years?

Part of it almost has an administrative flavor — unfinished liberal business that’s been overlooked like an unwashed sock all these many years. What’s a progressive state that allows gay marriage doing with a relic such as the death penalty?

Part of it is timeliness: Anything of consequence (read mass shootings) that happens on the eve of a legislative session is bound to have an immediate impact in legislative halls.

Part of it is strategic: With so much fur flying over the state’s Chesapeake Bay initiative, something as trivial as a bottle bill might fly below the radar.

That’s the micro view; the macro view is a little more interesting, and shows what happens when you swing for the fences but wind up popping out to short.

Not skilled at taking hints, those who contracted petition fever last year are at it again, this time backing a bill that would allow Maryland residents to petition laws to referendum anonymously.

Supporters of the bill say people should be able to sign a petition (thereby forcing a newly passed law to a public vote) without fear that their names will be released to the public.

Galludet University, for example, clearly crossed a line when it fired an employee — who was later reinstated — for signing a petition to bring a gay-marriage law to a vote.

But the larger argument held that gay-rights groups were obtaining lists of petition signers and subjecting them to harassment.

So to recap, it’s OK to harass gays, but it’s not OK to harass the people who harassed the gays in the first place. It was ever thus: Those who make a lifetime out of hurting other people’s feelings always shriek the loudest when their own sensibilities are damaged.

But if you want to make fate laugh, just make a plan. And it was the best-laid plans of conservative petitioners last year that actually wound up solidifying the state’s lurch back to the left.

True, the November election moved the needle leftward nationwide, but Maryland liberals clearly saw the resounding ballot defeats as a license to take the ball and run. The ballot initiatives against gays, immigrants and gerrymanderers actually wound up empowering all three groups and validating their positions. In these three cases, representative government actually represented the will of the people.

Now, lawmakers and courts will look at the Maryland popular votes and factor them in to their decisions going forward. Casa de Maryland ought to make Del. Neil Parrott its man of the year.

What will be interesting now is whether the state legislative leadership moves to make it more difficult to put duly-passed laws up to a popular vote. Certainly, with computerized data-mining programs, it is not only possible but relatively easy to find 60,000 people (the threshold for referendum) who are opposed to just about anything.

Seeing the relative ease with which voters brushed aside Parrott’s three initiatives in November, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly certainly have cover if they want to increase the number needed for referendum.

But would they want to? It’s difficult to believe that conservatives could resist bringing capital punishment and gun laws to a vote, even though the polls show they would face an uphill battle, and ultimately another embarrassing defeat.

So now that conservatives have created this ballot-box sticky situation, why wouldn’t the Democrats allow Republicans to punch away to the very last breath?

Not that it had much standing to begin with in Maryland, but the GOP brand took a serious hit courtesy of referendum. Not only did the GOP lose big, it gave further validation to the notion that state Republicans are tone deaf to the will of the people. And, in the frosting on the cake category, Republicans were seen as wasting our tax money on foolish, Quixotic goose chases.

State Democrats probably would prefer to see this referendum bother dead and buried. But, if they do indeed make referendum more difficult, there will be no overlooking the irony that it took Maryland Democrats to save Maryland Republicans from themselves.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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