February 24, 2010

State falls short on paying for fall election

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The state probably doesn’t have enough money in its proposed budget to conduct November’s election, a point that raised concerns Wednesday as a divided Board of Public Works approved a crucial computer contract to conduct the vote.

Comptroller Peter Franchot opposed the contract because there was not enough money in the budget for it. Gov. Martin O’Malley cut election funding in his fiscal 2011 spending plan.

Franchot said he is growing increasingly concerned about the board’s practice of approving contracts before the money is set aside for their payment.

“I just think this is a bad fiscal habit we’re getting into,” said Franchot. “It allows us as a board basically to pre-empt the spending authority of the legislature.

In a 2-1 vote, the board approved the seven-year, $43 million information technology project that would support the state’s existing touch-screen voting system.  Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted for the contract.

But the discussion of the contract at the end of four-hour board meeting illuminated the simmering debate over whether the state should switch to an “optical scan” voting system, which issues a paper ballot as required by law.

Lawmakers will likely have to approve a budget addition during the session that will pay for election costs, including part of the new contract. Legislative analysts have pegged the boost at around $1.6 million.

The state had planned to implement the optical scan system until this year, when O’Malley’s proposed budget called for its delay. The move saves nearly $3 million in the budget, but an activist at the meeting complained that the existing system might actually cost more to operate.

It’s hard to tell exactly how much it would cost, said Robert Ferraro, of Save Our Votes, a state organization that advocates using the optical scan system. He urged the board to get more details before approving the contract.

“Those estimates have never been put forward, and we keep hearing different estimates,” Ferraro said.

He cited an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services, which says the contract would likely cost around $13 million over the next two elections, and most of that cost will hit the 2011 budget that legislators are considering now.

Information Technology Secretary Elliot Schlanger, whose department will oversee the contract, said the state must come up with the money to administer the election, regardless of the mode of voting. That’s what this contract would do, he said.

“We need to run the election. There is no doubt about it,” Schlanger said. “Although we can pontificate and argue about what the benefits would be … the fact of the matter is that we have to deal actively with the system that we have.”