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ON THE SOAPBOX:
Considering the Ballot Questions
Monday, 1 November 2010
They’re asking us to decide without giving us any background, current data, or anything else to go on to make our decision.
In the midst of the marches, the rhetoric, the endless sniping across party lines on TV, and the slightly angry “chats” around the water cooler that make up the election season, some things are invariably forgotten until we walk into the voting booth: the ballot questions.
I would like to say that in this column I am going to delineate, dissect and explain all the ballot questions, but I can’t. One of the reasons I can’t is because it is hard to find out what they are. The link I’ve provided below will take you to some semblance of them, but, in fact, it only offers the barest minimum: exactly what we’re going to see on the ballot itself.
This has always been a issue for me. I want to know the really who-what-when-where-how-why, but this is rarely forthcoming.
For instance, take Question 1. Question 1 is a statewide question. It is, simply stated, “Should a constitutional convention be called for the purpose of changing the Maryland Constitution?" Apparently, in Article XIV, Section 2 of that same document, the writers required that every 20 years, the voters should be asked whether we want a convention.
My answer—which I’m sure will not be available on the ballot—is, “Hell, I don’t know!”
Are their problems with the Maryland Constitution? Should we look at this as an opportunity to make mandatory some things that people are fighting about? For instance, should we say “yes” and look at this as our chance to amend the document to redefine what “marriage” is? Does the Maryland Constitution even define “marriage”? Have any of us ever read the entire Maryland Constitution?
I’m sorry to say that I have not.
Or, how about Question 2? It actually is a Constitutional Amendment. It is asking us to raise the monetary limit at which a jury trial can be requested in a civil suit (I assume by the defendant) from $10,000 to $15,000.
As someone who hates being called for jury duty in any case, I can see where raising this limit could help take some of the pressure off the need for so many jurors. However, as someone who would not have $10,000 if someone sued me for that amount, I’m pretty certain I’d like the option to bring in a jury if I didn’t like the cut of the judge’s jib.
So, again, my answer is, “Hell, I don’t know!” Why are you asking me questions like this? Why does it have to be a Constitutional Amendment?
Question 3 is also a Constitutional Amendment. (Does the fact that we have two constitutional amendments on the ballot imply that the answer to Question 1 should be “yes”?)
But, of course, these are not the only things they’re asking us to decide without giving us any background, current data, or anything else to go on to make our decision. There’s the referenda and bond issues.
The most-talked-about is in Anne Arundel County: the infamous Question A. It’s asking that county's citizens to decide whether to lock the proverbial barn door after the horse has already left the building: to take away the right already given to the people who want to build the slots parlor at the mall by voting against the question. Actually, I hope they do—Vote against Question A—because somewhere along the line I think the reason why the people of Maryland voted for slots has gotten lost.
I voted for slots—and I think most did—to save racing. The whole pitch FOR slots was that the race tracks were dying and if we were to save the tracks, the horse raising industry and the Preakness, then we needed slots at the tracks. Yet not one of the proposed parlors is at a track, and when they talk about the money, they talk about it going to schools and roads and....what about the horseracing industry? I guess they lied to us about that. (Duh.)
In Baltimore, there are a fair number of such things to be decided, from something about what to do with “unanticipated surpluses”—which I can tell you right now should be kept in the general fund so that our property taxes can be reduced, but, anyway.... From that, to bond issues. I hate bond issues.
I remember voting so proudly one year for the bond issue to “renovate” the Lyric Theatre. I was thinking historic renovation. The talk at the time was about following the original plans for the theatre and building the front facade that had been envisioned. More fool, I. That modern monstrosity which was erected on the front of the historic theatre continues to make me a bit ill every time I see it, because I know I had a hand in allowing it to be built.
Here’s one from this year’s ballot.
Ordinance No. 10–287 to authorize the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore to borrow up to $33,378,000, to be used for the acquisition of land or property to construct and erect new school buildings, athletic and auxiliary facilities; and for additions and improvements to or modernization or reconstruction of existing school buildings or facilities; and to equip all buildings to be constructed, erected, improved, modernized, or reconstructed by the Ordinance; and for doing any and all things necessary, proper or expedient in connection therewith.
Notice the verbiage. We’re to allow them to borrow over 33 million dollars to buy land to erect new schools, athletic and auxiliary facilities “and for additions and improvements or modernization . . ." blah, blah, blah. Generally, I take that to mean that they’re going to tear down our old schools and put up new ones. Some of you may like that idea; I do not.
But, wait, there’s more.
“ . . . for doing any and all things necessary, proper or expedient in connection therewith.”
Read that, if we want to build a new school, and if it’s “expedient” to build it where your house is, we’re going to kick you out of it, pay you below market value and tear it down. Too bad for you and your neighborhood. And if you think I’m kidding, I’m not. Look at the words.
We should never, ever, ever approve the right of the Baltimore City Council to do what is "expedient" in the place of what is "proper."
If you vote “yes” on any of these bond issues, you are giving tacit permission for the City government to do “any and all things necessary, proper or expedient”—which can be anything at all. And, notice it does not say “proper and expedient,” but “or,” which means that if it’s expedient, but not proper, well, too bad, they’re going to do it. And, they’re going to do it because we’re giving them the right to.
Personally, I’d like to call a Baltimore City Constitutional Convention. And the first thing I would amend is the City Council’s right to place requests for building monies in the same request for fix-it-up monies. Added to my amendment would be an admonition that they never, ever, ever have the right to do what is expedient in the place of what is proper. And I would make certain that in all future bond issue requests they must tell us exactly, specifically–as they used to–what they want to do with that money, as in, “We want $33 million to tear down a block of buildings at blank and blank streets and build a new elementary school which will serve X neighborhood.”
If we vote “yes” on all Baltimore’s bond issues, we are giving the City permission to borrow an even $90 million to do with as they please. Baltimore County’s tab is more than double that: $190,824,280. And Montgomery County’s total is a whopping $267,798,000!
I think not. I think it’s time we say “NO, sorry.”
As to the State Constitutional Convention, I think “yes.” I don’t know if anything is wrong with it; I don’t know how long it’s been since we’ve looked at it; but perhaps it is time we went ahead and gave it the once-over. Maybe we could at least put a definition of “balanced budget” in the Constitution.
The government—no matter whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in charge—seems to think it means, “spend as much as we like and then think of a new tax or fee to pay for it.” The definition I want is, “The money you have is all you’re getting; make do.”
To look at the Questions, Amendments and bond issues, just click here.
Lynda Lambert, a college English instructor, writes from the Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on November 1, 2010.