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C. Fraser Smith: Adding to the referendum jamboree

When the General Assembly adjourns its special session next week, we are likely to have yet another ballot question to consider in November.

Legislators could say no to a sixth casino and even more opportunities to engage in games of chance in which no one really has a chance.(Sorry, I know that argument is over.)

The bill will pass, it says here, because Democrats have enough egg on their faces this year.

And, of course, some of the egg comes from an earlier failure on the issue of expanded gambling. Democrats, mostly, failed to settle the issue during the regular assembly session.

So we get to decide for them.

In fact, we will have a referendum jamboree this fall. Industrious citizens of Maryland have found a way — they think — of replacing the will of our elected representatives with their own: on same-sex marriage, on tuition rates for the children of immigrants and on the congressional redistricting map. (We may not really know the will of the assembly — beyond its willingness to have us decide.)

Reminds me of what they used to say about the New York Mets: Can’t anyone here play this game?

Voters are being asked via a spate of ballot questions to accept or reject the work of the men and women they elected to accept or reject such issues.

It’s hailed as a desperately needed dose of democracy. If you are a Republican, you will describe it this way. The assembly is overwhelmingly Democrat. Republicans can offer nothing more than rhetoric and outrage.

But that’s our system. Marylanders elect Democrats. So Democrats set the agenda. We are stuck with — or, alternatively, feel gratified by — the policies they adopt. If we don’t like what has been done, we are free to vote for men and women who think as we do. Elections are the real referenda.

Now, though, some of us are attempting to throw out the legislative process with a broad gauged citizen veto. If taken too far, we would have more chaos. The assembly considers thousands of bills every year.

What the referendum frenzy leaves out of the equation is reasoned consideration. I speak of those 90 days each year in which issues are discussed, debated, lobbied and voted on in our name. By contrast, if the assembly approves a ballot question on gambling, it will have spent less than a week in that process. Everyone knows the gambling issue — but it has become immensely more complicated politically, economically and procedurally.

There is the hope that this session will end the all-gambling-all-the-time nightmare. Don’t bet on it.

What we do have is an opportunity to think about the ballot question process as it stands. A legislator I know says we have a half-good system. (OK, those are not the words he used.)

We have the negative side of the equation. We can’t do much proactively. We can’t force an issue onto the legislative agenda. Vincent DeMarco and Health Care for All have managed to get health care issues before the assembly, but few others have done the same.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe proposes a constitutional amendment allowing the governor and the legislature to call a referendum — on a transportation investment program, for example.

We need a gridlock-busting transportation plan, he says, and we’re not getting one from the assembly for whatever reason.

If the state Constitution were changed, the senator says, “the governor and legislative leaders could convene a group, including private sector representatives, to draw up a plan to put to the voters. It should be both bold enough to inspire confidence that it will be a game-changer, reducing traffic congestion and driving smart growth, and practical enough that voters can understand why the benefits are worth the costs.”

Sounds like something governors and elected representatives should spend 90 days or so thinking carefully about.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.