May 26, 2010

New electronic bill review system saves time, money

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Dan Friedman was a happy man as he sat last Thursday watching the governor sign the last of more than 740 bills the legislature enacted this year.

For Friedman, the counsel to the General Assembly, and his staff it marked the end of intense weeks of legal review that involved lawyers on the attorney general’s staff in many agencies of the state government. Each year, after the legislators go home, the lawyers have to review each proposed law for “constitutionality” and “legal sufficiency” – making sure that each bill really ought to be a law.

This year for the first time they did it all electronically with a bill review system the AG’s IT folks devised on their own, replacing a cumbersome and time-consuming paper process. “We saved on postage, we saved time,” said Friedman. “It worked like a charm.”

Time is important, because “we’re under a constitutional deadline.” Any bill not vetoed by the governor within 30 days after he officially receives it goes into law without his signature.

“We start going as fast as we can” after the legislature finishes, Friedman said. Most of the bills the governor signs the day after the General Assembly closes are administration or departmental bills that have already been vetted by assistant attorneys general.

Friedman and his staff of three lawyers give a preliminary review to the legislation, and then ship it out to the attorneys who represent all the agencies of the state. “There are a lot of lawyers with great subject matter depth,” Friedman said. They can recognize when a proposed state law may be preempted by federal statutes or be in conflict with other state laws.

The attorneys don’t advise on whether a bill is a good idea or bad, but whether it is constitutional and legal under existing federal and state law.

“The courts tell us there’s a presumption of constitutionality,” said Friedman, who literally wrote the book on the Maryland Constitution, the most current reference guide used by lawyers. “We’re deferential to the legislature.”

Most of the review is routine, but some bills generate “special letters” from the attorney general to the governor identifying problems or other issues. There were about 30 or 40 of those this year, and they are now linked electronically to the bills on the General Assembly website.

One such letter this year involved duplicate Senate and House bills specifying eligibility for retiree health benefits for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a small intergovernmental coordinating agency. The attorney general’s letter concluded that the bills contained “an inadvertent drafting error” that might have removed current employees from a benefits plan. Nevertheless, Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote to Gov. Martin O’Malley: “Notwithstanding the apparent drafting error, it is our view that the bills may be interpreted so as to avoid that unintended and unpalatable outcome.”

O’Malley signed the bills Thursday.

There was also a bill affecting binding arbitration for collective bargaining agreement by local government that apparently conflicted with home rule provisions in the Maryland Constitution.

Gansler’s letter determined that the provision could be severed from the rest of the legislation, leaving the rest of the bill intact. O’Malley signed that legislation on Thursday as well.