Legislation in limbo, a.k.a. ‘summer study’

Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//April 25, 2010

Legislation in limbo, a.k.a. ‘summer study’

By Steve Lash

//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

//April 25, 2010

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Reintroduction is not the only route to reconsideration for bills that fail to make it out of committee during the legislative session.

Some measures are placed in a sort of legislative limbo by committees that announce they will consider the measure during the nine-month intersession. These bills are said to have been “referred to interim study,” or, less formally, “summer study.”

Sometimes the referred legislation addresses a complex statewide crisis, such as the rise in foreclosures. That crisis prompted much summer study in recent years, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“We knew it was going to be a problem,” Frosh said of foreclosures and the need to consider legislation during the summer. Those off-season meetings led to changes in Maryland law, including a requirement passed last session that enables homeowners to request mediation with their lenders to give them an opportunity to work on modifications.

But more often the referred legislation addresses a matter that simply falls in the grey area between committee approval and rejection and warrants more study before the next session, added Frosh, D-Montgomery.

Committee members “think maybe [the sponsors] are on to something, maybe they’re not,” Frosh added. “You don’t want to say flat ‘no.’ There’s a kernel of an idea.”

One bill referred for interim study this year is the proposed Maryland Open Government Act, House Bill 344/Senate Bill 407. The measure is intended to make the General Assembly’s website more accessible by, among other things, eliminating an $800 fee for “premium access” to up-to-the-minute bill information. (Other users must wait until the site is updated overnight.)

The legislation has 76 House and 31 Senate co-sponsors, more than enough to win approval in both General Assembly chambers.

But the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee referred the measure for interim study shortly before the General Assembly session ended April 12.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, the bill’s chief House sponsor, said she would have preferred to get a floor vote, but added that summer study will allow her to resolve the issues that gave committee members pause. That includes the technological requirements and costs of expanding the website, she said.

“At the end of the day, they weren’t prepared to pull the trigger” and send the bill to the floor, said Mizeur, D-Montgomery. Summer study will permit the committee to consider the legislation in “a thoughtful, measured way,” she said.

Beyond eliminating the $800 fee to get current information online, the open-government act would require committee meetings to be broadcast on the website.

It would also enable people to sign up online to testify on legislation as soon as a hearing date is announced. Currently, those wishing to testify must generally sign in at the committee room at least 30 minutes before the start of the hearing.

The bill would require the Board of Public Works to broadcast its meetings on its website. The BPW would be required to post its agenda for budget items at least two weeks before each meeting to allow the public to submit comments.

Mizeur said she will continue to urge the committee to approve the legislation during its summer study and not let it be forgotten during the long hiatus. But if the committee declines further action, Mizeur said she will reintroduce the bill next session.

“I won’t allow for it to be the kiss of death,” Mizeur said of the referral for interim study. “I will keep bringing it back.”

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