ANNAPOLIS – A new grass-roots property rights group claiming the Maryland Economic Development Corp. got too much power from the General Assembly this session won the go-ahead Tuesday to begin gathering signatures to overturn the lawmakers’ action.
The state Board of Elections approved the Citizens for Property Rights’ petition, and the group doesn’t have to wait to see if Gov. Parris N. Glendening signs the bill this spring. Instead they were authorized to begin collecting signatures to have the bill put on the November 2002 ballot.
“We don’t have two weeks to wait,” said Kenneth Timmerman, Maryland Taxpayers Association president and chairman of the newly formed Citizens for Property Rights.
The Citizens for Property Rights must submit 46,128 signatures to the Board of Elections by June 30, but one-third are due May 31. State law requires that no more than half the signatures for a ballot referendum come from one county, but Levy said he has found supporters in more than four counties.
MEDCO was created 17 years ago to help fund projects in economically distressed areas. This year, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 486, which supporters say clarifies the agency’s powers, but opponents say the bill gives MEDCO condemnation power and immunity from lawsuits.
When the Senate discussed expanding MEDCO’s authority earlier this spring, a few lawmakers objected but the emergency bill passed, 35-11, with little trouble. The House passed it 110-25.
The bill, sponsored by four Anne Arundel County senators, was designed to expand MEDCO’s authority and allow it to develop a 36-hole public golf course near Pasadena. The county’s bonding authority is “stressed to the limit” and needed help, said bill sponsor Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel.
“It has nothing to do with golf or how much golf costs,” said Levy, adding that too many people, including legislators, have focused on the golf course development and ignored the larger repercussions of the bill.
Instead, Levy is concerned the expansion will give too much power to the quasi-governmental entity, allowing to it have eminent domain and condemnation power over property.
MEDCO “goes from a 5-pound Chihuahua to an 800-pound gorilla,” he said. Property owners are leery of losing their property to MEDCO, he added.
Opponents also claim lawmakers gave MEDCO immunity from lawsuits in approving language that makes the corporation’s board decisions “conclusive.” Yet elsewhere in the bill, it says MEDCO can “sue and be sued in its own name.”
“(Conclusivity) means they’re immune from lawsuits,” Timmerman said. “That’s pretty extraordinary. To me, this is clearly unconstitutional.”
Jimeno is surprised by the opposition to the bill.
“I think they’re seeing things in this bill that do not exist,” Jimeno said. “MEDCO does not have the power to condemn property.”
That authority rests with local subdivisions, which must approve proposals by a two-thirds majority before taking them to MEDCO, he added.
Timmerman acknowledged this, but added, “Some county councils (may) propose bad deals to the public.”
“And we don’t think government should have that kind of power over private property,” he said.
“MEDCO has an outstanding track record,” Jimeno said. “There’s been no unfair competition with the private sector.”
MEDCO has funded 119 projects, including a General Motors transmission manufacturing plant near White Marsh, Jimeno said. The GM plant provided 600 new jobs in Maryland — not Virginia or other states, he added.
Glendening has scheduled three more bill-signings for April 20, May 15 and May 18, and it is unknown which bills he will sign. Even Jimeno said he doesn’t know if the governor will sign the bill. Levy hopes the governor vetoes it. “The legal team hasn’t finished reviewing (the bill) yet, and it hasn’t made it to him yet,” said Mike Morrill, the governor’s spokesman. Levy isn’t worried by the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot. Last year, he helped mount a grass-roots campaign to defeat Senate Bill 509, a Baltimore County eminent domain bill. “I can’t wait to get out there and start circulating the petition.”