By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – When state voters head to the polls Nov. 5, they will decide not only who the next governor will be, but whether to allow three amendments to the state’s constitution and the fate of a number of local ballot questions.
The most influential of the referendum questions, Question 2, would grant the General Assembly expanded authority to enact emergency legislation — including changing the terms or duties of any state office not established by the constitution.
Anne Arundel and Baltimore County voters will decide whether or not to grant police and fire unions unique contract bargaining privileges.
Voters in Charles, Dorchester and Frederick counties will decide if they favor home rule, which would expand the power of county government in those areas.
Question 2, said Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, does not affect public offices created by Maryland’s Constitution, such as governor, comptroller or delegates.
“Some people thought we were affecting their duties,” Zarnoch said. “The answer is no, it doesn’t affect constitutional officers.”
The amendment would allow the General Assembly to pass “emergency” legislation changing the duties of officers such as a school board member or an agency head.
The Assembly now may pass emergency legislation – a law that takes effect before June 1 – with a three-fifths vote in both houses. No actual emergency is required, but the bill must be declared an emergency vote.
The amendment is needed, said Zarnoch, because the General Assembly has the emergency authority to change a state agency, but not to alter duties of that agency’s administrator.
“If you wanted to abolish something and take a new direction, you couldn’t do that,” said Zarnoch, citing April’s debate to abolish the current Prince George’s County Board of Education.
State legislators have enacted such emergency legislation in the past despite lacking the authority, said Zarnoch, citing the savings and loan crisis in 1985.
Then, the General Assembly voted to turn a private insurer into a state agency, which resembled a board of public officers, to prevent savings and loans from withdrawing money, said Zarnoch. The Attorney General’s Office waited to see if anyone would challenge the law in court, which no one did.
Question 2 would remove any question of legality about similar legislation.
One opponent said the amendment gives the General Assembly power to overturn local elections.
“We have a very democratic process in place,” said Delegate Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, one of 14 delegates to oppose the bill putting the amendment on the ballot. “It does really disenfranchise the voters.”
The amendment puts even more power in the hands of the state government, Amedori said, which is dominated by a single party, the Democrats.
Maryland and California are the only two states that limit the legislature’s ability to pass emergency legislation. In Maryland though, Zarnoch said, voters are protected because it remains an option to petition emergency laws to referendum.
Decision-making authority is also at stake in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where voters will decide whether to support the option of binding arbitration in contract negotiations for police and firefighters.
In binding arbitration, an outside mediator decides contract issues.
Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said the amendment strips some of his power to negotiate with county employees, though Ruppersberger, who is running for a congressional seat, has not taken a position on the referendum, said Baltimore County spokeswoman Elise Armacost.
“It definitely takes away some authority of the county executive,” said Armacost, who said no other Baltimore County employees enjoy this privilege.
Anne Arundel County officials cite similar reasons for their opposition.
“Instead of having an elected official making that decision, it’s put in the hands of an arbitrator” who may not be from Anne Arundel County, said Mark Atkisson, a personnel officer with the county.
Binding arbitration, said the Fraternal Order of Police, gives officers more leverage in negotiations, since they are forbidden from striking by state law.
“This only encourages good-faith bargaining,” said O’Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge. “When we’re dealt with unfairly we have no where else to go.”
Binding arbitration also prevents protracted contract disputes, said Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County FOP Lodge.
“The important thing is that it offers up, not only to the FOP but the jurisdiction, a resolution date,” said Weston. Binding arbitration reduces tension for both sides, Weston said.
Prince George’s County has had binding arbitration for police and firefighters since 1982, according to Joseph Adler, personnel officer for the county. He said the process has worked.
“Both sides have to reasonable when you go to the arbitrator,” he said. “By and large it has achieved its purpose.” The Baltimore County amendment, Question C, does not amend the county charter, but authorizes the County Council to make the change. In Anne Arundel County, Question D for police and E for firefighters, would require the County Council to vote for the amendment.