Study commissions: The legislature’s way of avoiding tough decisions

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By Tom LoBianco

Task forces and study committees often serve in Annapolis as a way of putting off making decisions on tough issues. Kick it to a study, and report back later, goes the thinking in the General Assembly.

And sometimes state lawmakers kick so hard they forget about those committees until the issue they were supposed to be studying pops up again in the news. That’s already happened at least twice during this year’s legislative session, with task forces which were supposed to study sex offenders and juvenile prisoners.

The legislative task force is also occasionally used in Annapolis to defuse hot-button issues in election years.

One such high-profile example was The Commission to Study the Impact of Immigrants in Maryland, which was formed at the height of the hotly contested First Congressional District race in 2008. Two years later that group has still not met, though a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley says the group will start its work this coming summer.

“Very often, they are a way of punting. If you can’t solve an issue, create a task force. If you want to delay action on an issue, create a commission,” says House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican.

In 2007, O’Donnell sought a study that would detail the number of study committees created over the years and the total cost to the state (and taxpayers.) But he did not remember that request when asked about it last week.

House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, a member of the committee studying the corporate tax issue known as combined reporting, said such issues as complicated tax law changes lend themselves to study groups.

Still, the Montgomery County Democrat is not enthusiastic about having the legislature pass commissions and task forces to study issues as a way to avoid making tough decisions.

“Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of task forces,” Barve said. “The committees ought to do the work and that’s enough. I wish people would look at this and have a second thought. The Speaker and I try to discourage it.”

Speaker Michael E. Busch did more than just discourage the creation of such groups after becoming the leader of the House in 2003. He placed an informal ban on the use of joint resolutions to create task forces and study commissions

“It came to a point where we were having more resolutions, task forces and commission appointed than we were doing anything else, rather than saying, ‘Look we'll come back and look at this legislation next year,’” Busch said.

“We thought it was in everyone's best interest,” said the Anne Arundel County Democrat.

In 2006, lawmakers empanelled a group to study the state’s sex offender laws. Former Prince George’s County Sheriff James Aluisi was tapped by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to head the group.

The panel never met, and the issue escaped public notice until the start of this session – weeks after a convicted sex offender was caught and charged with the murder of an 11-year-old Eastern Shore girl last December. The General Assembly now seems poised to approve a new package of legislation related to sex offenders.

Likewise, lawmakers formed a group to oversee the state’s juvenile justice system in 2006. They voted overwhelmingly to support the measure, even overriding Ehrlich’s veto of the measure.

Four years later, following the murder of a teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and a renewed political focus on juvenile services, Center Maryland reported that the group had never met. The delegates who were supposed to participate on the commission were never even appointed.

Now, in the midst of campaign season, lawmakers are considering establishing a new group to study the state’s juvenile justice system.

“Some bills are killed by making them task forces, some of them have genuine need to study piece of legislation before you make some monumental change in the law,” said Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Zirkin sponsored the original measure to create the juvenile services oversight committee, but said he was not sure it was the original focus of the bill.

This year, lawmakers are set to pass major reforms to the state’s childcare payment laws that would result in thousands of additional dollars paid out and collected by separated parents.

The measure received near-unanimous support in the Senate last week, with the sole dissenting vote coming from Zirkin. The measure would result in thousands of dollars in new mandatory payments for parents who are cash-strapped and would likely spark multiple lawsuits near Election Day, he said.

The answer, he said: study it.

During the 2007 special session, liberal activists came very close to winning a measure that would have collected more than $100 million in additional taxes from large corporations using “combined reporting.”

Less than three years later, they are still lobbying for the combined reporting tax law changes.

“Some task forces are legitimate, but that was not a legitimate task force, it was just designed to put off a decision to get more corporate donations,” said Sean Dobson, executive director of Progressive Maryland and a lead lobbyist for combine reporting.

“'It makes me mad,” he said.

Barve has sponsored a bill to move up the reporting deadline for the combined reporting study committee to the end of this year. The committee would report its tax recommendations one month before lawmakers return in 2001 to tackle what is expected to be another massive gap between revenues and expenses – a gap that many Republican critics say is likely to be filled with new taxes.

Amid a raging debate in 2008 about the impact of illegal immigration in Maryland – which was driven in large part by two Republican state senators running for a Congressional seat based out of the Eastern Shore – lawmakers kicked the issue to a study committee.

Two years later, with immigration largely subsided as hot-button issue in the face of continuing economic problems, that group has not met. Nevertheless, the task force is still set to report its findings to the General Assembly in January, an O’Malley spokesman said.

But Busch acknowledged that with Maryland’s senators and delegates focused on running for re-election in November, it’s unlikely that lawmakers appointed to task forces and study committees will spend much time with the groups this summer.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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