By Glynis Kazanjian
The lead sponsor who objects to efforts to overturn his bill granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants said referendum efforts by opponents could cost the state millions and the drive is being funded by outside Tea Party interests.
“It costs the state a lot of money, and these guys are supposed to be fiscally conservative?” Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince Georges, said last Friday. “We’re going to spend millions of dollars potentially for a referendum. It’s going to be more expensive to run the referendum than it is to fund the policy.”
“It’s definitely being driven by the Tea Party, not locally, but nationally,” Ramirez said. “It’s people from the outside trying to tell Maryland what policy they should pass.”
Officials say cost is minimal
But state officials say the cost of putting the issue on the ballot is fairly minimal, and some organizers say there is little evidence of out-of-state funding for the petition drive.
“The petition verification process can be done with existing staff,” said Mary Wagner, state board voter registration director. “The state board of elections does not hire temporary employees to process, and it is my belief, neither do the local boards.”
Petitioners only have another four weeks to collect the first one-third of the 55,736 signatures that must be collected by June 30. The large numbers and short length of time help explain why only two laws have made it to a state-wide referendum in Maryland in the last 23 years, according to the elections board. Those were attempts to repeal measures banning Saturday night special handguns in 1988 and a permissive abortions bill in 1992. Both referendums failed.
The only costs associated with the referendum process would be mailing the petitions to local election boards for signature verification and printing a bill summary to be included with a sample ballot that is mailed out prior to each election, according to local and state election board officials. The 2012 ballot will already include one constitutional amendment requiring judges of the orphans court to be lawyers in two counties.
Ramirez said he thought legal challenges would also contribute to referendum costs, but Assistant Attorney General Jeff Darsie said it was more a matter of potential time spent on litigation, not money.
“If you’re asking if we would hire additional counsel or outside lawyers, the answer is no,” Darsie said. “It would cost [time] to the extent that we’re working on litigation and we’re not working on other things. I don’t know that there will be any litigation on this at all.”
Outside funding is denied
Various groups have been actively involved with signature gathering since referendum efforts began last month, but two major players denied any knowledge of outside Tea Party involvement.
“It has been a trend with Democrats across the nation to accuse Tea Partiers of being some-form of ‘astro-turf,’ ” (as opposed to grassroots), said Maryland Society of Patriots Founder Sam Hale. “These comments, especially in regards to Maryland, show a basic ignorance of what the Tea Party is. Opposite of MoveOn.org and most Democrat campaigns, off-shore funding and the need to pay activists an hourly rate is not the Tea Party’s style.”
“Victor Ramirez is not one to be commenting on out of state donations as he received extensive support from CASA de Maryland, who has received donations from throughout the world, including Hugo Chavez,” Hale added.
Brochin: No signs of Tea Party
Sen. Jim Brochin, (D-Baltimore County), a prominent Democrat who supports the referendum, said a successful effort to overturn the legislation would mean a majority of voters don’t like the law and the process is part of checks and balances and a system of democracy.
“I haven’t heard anything about the Tea Party,” Brochin said. “I represent a pretty conservative district, and I am a Democrat, but I can tell you that in the liberal parts of my district, I have liberal Democrats coming up to me on a consistent basis saying, ‘What about illegal don’t these people understand?’ This isn’t a Tea Party issue.”
When asked if citizens should have the right to bring issues to referendum, Ramirez said, “Of course, but then why have a legislature? Where does it stop? I thought we were elected by the people and were accountable to the people. At the end of the day, if people don’t like the decisions and the votes we’re taking, that’s what elections are for.”
Burns supports referendum
But Del. Emmett Burns, Baltimore County Democrat who voted against the bill and supports the referendum, disagrees.
“I do think the people should decide whether or not they want this to happen,” Burns said. “This was pushed by a very liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the House and it was a very, very close vote. I think due to the closeness of the vote, the constituents of the state should make that decision.”
The bill passed 74-65, getting just three more than the required constitutional majority of 71 needed for passage.
Signatures being collected
Over the weekend, Tea Party groups and other opponents of the legislation were out collecting signatures. Brad Botwin of Help Save Maryland said his group collected 800 signatures at the Towsontown Festival and another affiliated group collected 200 signatures at the Chesapeake boat show. The Maryland Republican party is also likely to send out a mass e-mail this week containing petition information, GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.
New guidelines for petition signatures are still awaiting final approval by the Office of the Attorney General that is expected sometime this week. Signature standards will have been relaxed slightly, said Donna Duncan, state board election management director.
Many petitions will be generated and printed from computers. Petition forms that do not have the bill summary stapled to the signature page will not be validated, Duncan said.