2017 Legislative Session: Progress on democracy reforms, foundation for future work

(Annapolis) — The 2017 legislative session saw solid progress on democracy reforms. Common Cause Maryland moved significant reforms on money in politics, and advanced technical reforms on a range of issues. The progress made this year lays a strong base for continued work in 2018.

“This is the first time I have ever seen the legislature move bills on all five key areas of government reform — money in politics, voting rights, redistricting, transparency, and ethics — in one legislative session,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “In a session bookended with ethics scandals, and marked by partisan bickering in between, the progress we saw in the last 90-days proves that our elected officials can come to Annapolis and set aside their political concerns to focus on solid policy — fixing the fissures we are seeing in our democracy.”

“Common Cause Maryland is the only group focused solely on ensuring our democracy is responsive and accountable. We identify areas of concern and position reforms through solid research and policy development. We are proud to have worked successfully with the Governor and the legislature on reforms that will strengthen our democracy right here and now,” said Bevan-Dangel.

“In the shadow of the 2018 state election, we are especially proud that the legislature heeded our warnings about the coming tide of third party spending and passed a package of bills to address those concerns,” noted Damon Effingham, legal and policy director. He pointed to three core reforms as particularly noteworthy:

  • A package of bills (SB130, HB 898, and HB 1498) that closed loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws to create stronger firewalls and protections around third party spenders, such as Super PACS;
  • A resolution (SJ2/HJ2) that rescinds the state’s outdated calls for a constitutional convention;
  • Bipartisan engagement on reforms to tackle the ethics issues raised this year, both tightening up conflicts of interest provisions (HB 879) and creating ethics oversight of license commissions (HB 1386) and Prince George’s County liquor boards in particular (SB488/HB1317).

“While we are proud of the solid progress made this year, we are also disappointed by two missed opportunities,” observed Effingham. Those include:

  • Time ran out on a critical bill, a constitutional amendment (SB 423) that would allow Marylanders to register to vote on Election Day.
  • For the first time in decades the legislature moved a bill (SB1023) that would reform the state’s rigged redistricting process. However, the bill contains a trigger provision undermines its impact, and more work must be done to ensure reforms are in place by 2022.

With the 2017 session over, Common Cause Maryland will focus on further advancing reforms teed up in the last 90 days:

  • The legislature passed technical reforms to the state’s laws around open meetings (SB450/HB880) and public information (SB1057/HB383), but this issue will return after the Attorney General finishes his study, as required in legislation in 2015, on both issues. That study could tee up significant reform bills for the 2018 legislative session.
  • The Governor’s budget continued to refill the funding for the gubernatorial fair elections program, ensuring at least one candidate can use the Fair Campaign Finance Fund in 2018. But interest in these programs has grown significantly — with Howard County adopting a program on the ballot in 2016 and Montgomery County’s program funded for operation in 2018. Legislation to take these programs state-wide is getting new energy and will certainly be back.
  • While the focus this year was getting Election Day registration on the ballot in 2018, there are additional reforms — such as universal voter registration — that complete the reform and ensure every eligible voter is ready to vote on Election Day. Universal registration has been adopted in more states since the issue was first raised in Maryland in 2016, and there are now models working in other states that Maryland can build on in future legislation.

A full wrap up of the legislative session will be available on Common Cause Maryland’s website at md.commoncause.org.

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Common Cause Maryland is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest, and accountable government that works for the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, 410–303–7954, JBD@CommonCause.org
Damon Effingham, 410–310–0737, DEffingham@CommonCause.org