John O. Sullivan
The General Assembly may continue its session so long as in its judgment the public interest may require, for a period not longer than ninety days in each year. The ninety days shall be consecutive unless otherwise provided by law. The General Assembly may extend its session beyond ninety days, but not exceeding an additional thirty days
-Article III, Sec 15, Part 1, Maryland Constitution
Four months ago, at noon on January 11th, the Maryland General Assembly (MDGA) convened in Annapolis to begin its 2017 legislative session. Three months later, April 10th, was “Sine Die,” the last day of legislative session until it reconvenes in January 2018. Maryland’s legislature is only in session for 90 consecutive days a year, including weekends and holidays. All the legislating that is to happen for the entire year, including drafting, scoring, and passing a balanced budget, must happen within those 90 days. This has been true since Maryland adopted its current Constitution in 1867, but now, as Marylanders approach the 150th birthday of their State Constitution, it is patently obvious that the current legislative model is tragically antiquated.
The intent behind the 90-day legislature is certainly noble. The core concept is that by only having a part-time legislature, the legislators not be career politicians, but rather “real people,” people who come to the state capitol to honorably serve the state and the public for three months a year, and then return home to their lives. Sadly, this is no longer the result in the modern day. The General Assembly is overwhelmingly from a narrow selection of professions and backgrounds. 91% have a college degree, and 53% have some manner of degree beyond a Bachelor’s, compared with 38% of Marylanders over 25 who have Bachelor’s degrees. Having an educated assembly is certainly an asset, and Maryland is also one of the most educated states in the country, but the flip side of the education coin is that it means most legislators don’t have the same kind of background or day-to-day experience of the people they are supposedly representing. Maryland’s legislators are overwhelmingly Businesspeople, Lawyers, and career Politicians/Bureaucrats; hardly a representation of all Maryland has to offer. By the MDGA’s own numbers, 86% of legislators are either from the fields of business, law, or politics. An additional 4% are self-declared “retired.” This revelation leads to a second point; Maryland’s legislature is incredibly old. 66% of legislators are over the age of 55. More than a quarter of them are eligible to receive Social Security. The General Assembly is categorically unreflective of the state’s population.
Clearly, the 90-day session no longer succeeds in its goal to create a true citizen’s legislature. Think about it, who in the world can afford to take three months a year off? In a modern economy, the only people who can afford that much time off every spring are the self-employed, the semi-retired, and highly educated wealthy professionals (who are often also self-employed). This explains why such a high percentage of the legislature are businesspeople or lawyers (61%) and career politicians (25%). It also explains why the legislature is so old (Again, 66% of them are over 55). My own grandfather, a lawyer in semi-retirement, is infamous for the 6-week vacation he takes at the start of every year. The Delegates and Senators of the Maryland General Assembly double that with an impressive three month stint in Annapolis, staying in hotels on the taxpayer dime. How many 25 year olds do you know who could leave their jobs for 3 months with no repercussions? How many 35 year olds? Probably not too many.
Maryland is also a big state to govern in 90 days. 6 million Marylanders are counting on the state to do the best job it can for us. The Maryland General Assembly website announces, almost braggadociously, that the General Assembly processes 2,500 pieces of legislation and the state budget in a typical 90 day session. Can we really expect that many pieces of legislation AND a $17 billion budget to be processed fully, thoroughly, and intelligently in such a short period of time? Especially when you consider that 26 of those 90 days are the weekend, which the General Assembly does not work until it’s in “crunch time” as Sine Die approaches. The General Assembly also has the enviable work arrangement of taking Friday afternoons and Mondays off in the early-to-mid part of session to allow legislators to return home for the weekend, accounting for as many as 12 more lost days of work. Can we really expect the best possible product from our legislators in just 50-something days worth of work a year?
The 90-Day legislature also contributes to the over-prominence of the Executive in Maryland. Maryland’s governor is already legally and constitutionally one of the most powerful in the country. This is only amplified by letting the Governor and executive agencies have the stage all to themselves for nine months out of the year. The General Assembly has shown it either cannot or will not effectively respond to the Governor when it is not in session. This is bad from not only a partisan politics perspective, but from a checks-and-balances perspective as well. If the General Assembly has used its 90 day term and if, say, it needed it’s 30 day extension to pass the budget, they are legally unable to call a session of the Assembly until the following January, no matter what the cause, which is a massive risk.
The 90-day session makes no sense in the modern day. It severely limits the people who are able to run, which leads to representation that doesn’t actually reflect the people. It also limits the amount of work that can be done in a single year by the legislature, allowing the urgent to crowd out the important time and time again. Marylanders pay their legislators almost as much as the U.S. median household income (43.5k vs 51.9k). A single Maryland legislator makes more for 90(ish) days of work than a large number of U.S. households make in a whole year. Lastly, it leads to the overreach of the executive.
It’s time to bring Maryland into the modern day. If not a year-round legislature, then at the very least, a constitutional amendment to extend session to 120 days annually should be considered. The dream of a part-time, citizen legislature is a noble and worthy one, but it is just that, a dream. Modern economic forces have irreversibly ended that idea. The only way to get regular people back into the legislature now is to extend session, not make it shorter. A longer session opens the path of Delegate- and Senatorship to those outside a select few by making it a more viable means of employment. At the very least, we can give the General Assembly enough time to be a little more careful with their homework.