March 21, 2010

Analysis: Sunshine Week turns mostly cloudy on pensions for counties

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

It was a fitting end to Sunshine Week in Annapolis Friday morning when the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee threw everybody out of the hearing room with no explanation.

Those tossed included staff, lobbyists and our reporter Erich Wagner. Staff members told Wagner it had to do with an individual senator.

It looked like a violation of the Open Meetings Law on a day when the committee was due to make its final decisions on the governor’s budget.

As senators left the meeting shortly after via the back door, they cleared up the mystery. The members of the committee had gotten together to buy memorial tree-plantings in Israel in honor of the recently-deceased mother of Sen. Rona Kramer, a committee member. Chairman Ulysses Currie wanted the gift made in private.

The committee does a lot of things of more public import in the privacy of the conference room and offices behind the public space. Beginning last Monday, in the public hearing room, the subcommittees and full committee accepted or rejected scores of budget cuts with little or no public debate, officially confirming decisions that had been hashed out beforehand.

The public process is both rapid and confusing, as lawmakers and staff juggle three different sets of documents. Get distracted by an e-mail on your cell phone, and you’ve missed a key decision.

When the decision documents are dumped on the press table, there’s a mad scramble by lobbyists to grab a set. Without them, the terse discussion is incomprehensible, as would be any webcast of the proceedings. (These preliminary working papers are not available online.)

Friday afternoon’s final session was particularly opaque as committee members discussed amendments only they had copies of – typical for most committees, unfortunately.

The most significant change was a shift in the cost of teacher pensions now paid entirely by the state. Over the next three years, half the costs would be picked up by the counties.

The representatives of county governments in the room knew they were getting hig but they didn’t realize how badly until they actually saw the text of the changes. Here’s how Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, put it in MACo’s Conduit Street blog:

“Not a word was mentioned in the committee decision meeting about the fourth component detailed on the summary sheet distributed to the Committee membership and eventually the public.

“Without any accompanying discussion at all,” Sanderson goes on, “the education funding laws appear to have been completely rewritten, at least for this three year period. Rather than establishing the MOE funding level as a requirement to receive added state funding, the State (or rather this Committee of the Senate) now proposes to institute a firm mandate that each county simply must fund the school at that level.”

Of course, action by one committee, no matter how powerful, does not make a done deal. County officials will take the battle to the full Senate, and failing there, to the House, where there has been extreme reluctance to shift the pension burden to local governments, even among Republicans.