ANNAPOLIS — At least five bills in this year’s General Assembly would limit the state’s ability to sell land without legislative oversight, but the most thorny would amend Maryland’s Constitution.
That move — executed in the wake of a dubious and failed land deal in St. Mary’s County — has strong Democratic support, but Republicans are calling it unnecessary.
After the media uncovered the proposed sale of conservation land to developer Willard Hackerman, hearings were held, and Democrats began this session proposing ways to prevent the administration from selling off real estate “crown jewels” without specific approval from the General Assembly.
The benefit of a constitutional amendment is that if passed it would go directly to voters — Ehrlich would not have veto power over it.
A constitutional amendment would require support of three-fifths of each chamber — 29 votes in the Senate, 85 in the House. According to a Senate legislative aide, at least one Senate bill already has 30 sponsors and co-sponsors.
Another bonus for Democrats is that the bill would appear on the same ballot in 2006 as Ehrlich’s reelection bid, serving to remind voters of the publicity the St. Mary’s deal garnered.
Legislative Republicans see the amendment effort as mere politics.
“I think it’s completely unnecessary,” said Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “It’s a solution in search of a problem. It’s an incursion by the Legislature into the executive branch, a manifestation that folks are still sore about losing the election two years ago,” he said.
It’s not politics, said Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s.
“We consider the land and the process (of disposing of it) as sacred as some of our fundamental rights, so I think it should be in the Constitution of Maryland.”
Dyson said Tuesday he has received letters and e-mail from constituents who said they were Republicans, but didn’t like the land sale.
“I told them people could like Governor Ehrlich but not this policy,” Dyson said. He noted it was their land, purchased with taxpayer dollars.
Ehrlich batted down the talk of the deal.
“It’s an old story that was no story in the first place,” he said, caught Tuesday after an unrelated news conference.
In early 2003, the Department of Natural Resources — along with other state agencies — inventoried its assets and said it found 2,900 acres with little natural resource value that should be disposed of to maximize state assets.
In October, media uncovered the proposed sale of land at the state’s cost of $2.5 million to Hackerman, a developer with long and deep political connections to both parties. Hackerman said he intended to donate part of the land for schools and seek a tax break of $7 million by donating development rights on the land, but state records released in November show that Hackerman also wanted to rezone part of the property to develop waterfront homes.
Hackerman has said the deal has been misunderstood and he has been mistreated by the media.
The deal fell through, and since then other proposed disposals of state land have been questioned by the media, conservation groups, and Democrats.
Dyson said the failed deal was a tremendous departure from what had been done in the past to preserve open space.
“I wish it had never come up. People are (already) very cynical about the political system, and then the governor tries to do something in secret.”
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, called the proposed excess land disposal “the mother of all fire sales. If it’s not nailed down, this governor will sell it. They’re basically stripping the state down to its axles.”
Franchot said the Department of General Services had hired The Staubach Co., formed by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, to “help sell off assets.”
“The governor then had a fund-raiser with Roger Staubach as the draw, filled with developers eager to whisper in Staubach’s ear about projects they thought the state should do.”
Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the Department of General Services, confirmed that Staubach’s company had won a competitive bid to develop a database and software modeling tools to help the state determine how best to use its real estate assets.
Delegate Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, favors legislation over a constitutional amendment. She said her father served on the Board of Public Works, was president of the Senate, created the Open Space program, and left her “with a real sense of the importance of preserving the balance of power.”