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Ballot initiative group seeks review of JHU police force referendum question

A ballot initiative group formed to oppose the creation of a private police force for Johns Hopkins University is asking a judge to review the preliminary decision by the State Board of Elections that the issue cannot be subject to a referendum vote.

Women Against Private Police, or WAPP, was formed April 3 to collect petition signatures to refer Senate Bill 793 to a referendum vote. The bill, which allows Johns Hopkins University to create its own police department, was passed by the legislature on April 1 and signed into law on April 18.

WAPP submitted its proposed petition to the Board of Elections on April 8 seeking an advanced determination about its sufficiency. The group was informed on April 17 that the bill could not be referred to referendum because it was an appropriation.

The lawsuit, filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on Monday, seeks an order vacating the board’s decision and finding the bill is subject to referendum.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General said Thursday that the Board of Elections “did not formally determinate that the legislation … cannot go to referendum” but “raised concerns about whether that was the case with the sponsor of the proposed petition.”

Election law requires the board to make an advanced determination about the sufficiency of a petition if one is requested; a final decision is made only when the petition is filed, according to the lawsuit. The law also requires a final determination to be consistent with the advanced one, according to ACLU of Maryland attorney David Rocah.

The Maryland Constitution prohibits rejection or repeal by referendum of a law “making any appropriation for maintaining the State Government, or for maintaining or aiding any public institution, not exceeding the next previous appropriation for the same purpose.”

But the lawsuit argues the funding mentioned in the bill is “completely unrelated to funding the bill and completely unrelated to a Hopkins police force,” Rocah said.

The bill contained “legislative spending measures” directing the governor to include funds in future budgets for four youth programs: the Seed Community Development Anchor Institution Fund, the Local Management Board for Baltimore City, the Baltimore City YouthWorks Summer Jobs Program and a Law Enforcement Cadet Apprenticeship Program.

Rocah said the ACLU of Maryland and co-counsel at the Public Justice Center believe legislators will gain a tool to avoid legislation going before the public for a vote if such spending provisions can prevent a referendum.

“(We) think if this is allowed, if including these unrelated spending measures in a bill is sufficient to insulate the bill from referendum, we have essentially nullified the right to referendum,” Rocah said.

Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center, agreed that there was a risk that legislators would use the board’s decision to stop future legislation from being subject to referendum.

“We want to make sure that the legislature can’t just prevent referendum by putting a bunch of unrelated things together,” she said. “If this decision were to stand, that would be the import. It would then become easy to do this intentionally, whether it was done intentionally here or not.”

Jillian Aldebron, chair of WAPP, said the Board of Elections’ decision sends the message that any bill can be kept from referendum by “tacking on an unrelated spending measure.”

“The State Constitution does give voters the final say when they oppose passage of a bill by their elected representatives, and that is the right to veto it through a referendum,” Aldebron said in a statement. “Unless we exercise and defend that right, we risk losing it.”

The lawsuit argues the spending measures were not the “primary purpose” of the act and the Board of Elections’ determination was incorrect.

Rocah said the issue of whether unrelated spending measures in a bill can render a law unfit for referendum is a matter of first impression in Maryland courts.

The bill file contains testimony from 246 people and organizations and “overwhelmingly focuses on the merits of allowing JHU to establish its own police force with state police powers,” according to the lawsuit. Of the written testimony in the file, 67 are from opponents apparently using a template that argues against pairing the police force issue with funding for youth programs. A handful of others mention the spending measures.

The bill has an effective date of July 1. The first deadline for signatures supporting the referendum is May 31.

The case is Women Against Private Police et al. v. Maryland State Board of Elections et al., C-02-CV-19-001327.

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