Tuition, marriage, districting bills OK’d for state referendums
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 11:01

New county referendum process sought

by Ben Boehl

    While everyone in Maryland is looking forward to the high-profile federal election races, the most competitive races in Maryland might be those deciding the fates of the state’s version of the DREAM Act, the recently-passed same-sex marriage law and the state’s congressional redistricting plan.
    All of these bills were passed by the Maryland General Assembly during the last two years, but opponents of the bills have challenged them through petition drives. If enough signatures are collected the bill becomes subject to referendum and will be voted on by the public.

The state’s “DREAM Act,” which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, received enough signatures last year to go to referendum this year.
    The Maryland State Board of Elections verified that both the same-sex marriage bill and the redistricting bill received enough signatures to get on the ballot for November.
    The petition challenging the Civil Marriage Protection bill, which legalized same-sex marriage in Maryland, received over 109,000 signatures, nearly double the required 55,736 needed.
    Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District) voted for the bill, but looks forward to seeing how the public will decide on the issue.
    “I said all along that I totally expected it to get where the people would vote on it. I trust the people’s judgment. I hope it remains  respectful, as it will be continued  to be discussed and debated.” Olszewski said. “If this was still to pass, I’m proud that it would have some of the strongest religious protection in the country.”
    Olszewski’s 6th District colleague Del. Joseph “Sonny” Minnick voted against the bill and is not surprised that it will go to referendum. He told The Eagle he is happy the public gets the final say too.
    “Whatever they decide is fine by me. I’ve gotten calls for it and against it. I think it will be close,” Minnick said.
    According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, the congressional redistricting plan received 58,798 signatures to get on the ballot. Critics argue that a referendum was needed as the resulting districts, approved by Gov. Martin O’Malley and his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, are heavily  gerrymandered.
    Opponents of the current plan say it was geared toward protecting Democratic congressional incumbents and targeting Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose western Maryland-based 6th Congressional District was changed to include parts of Montgomery County  that have a high percentage of Democrats. In the redrawn 6th, Bartlett is considered vulnerable.
    While there are plenty of choices on the state level, a grassroots organization called BaltoCoPetitions  is upset that no local referendums will be voted on in Baltimore County.
    BaltoCoPetitions tried to get a referendum on the controversial transgender-rights bill that was passed by the Baltimore County Council 5-2 in February. All five Democrats on the council (including 7th District Councilman John Olszewski Sr.) voted for the bill, and the council’s two Republicans voted against.
    That led BaltoCoPetitions to start a petition drive to get the “Transgender Bill” on the 2012 ballot, but the group fell short on signatures. So if three statewide petition drives could lead to three referendums, why couldn’t a simple countywide petition drive lead to at least one county referendum?
    Al Nalley of BaltoCoPetitions explained that it’s not that easy for a law to be subjected to referendum in the county. The number of signatures needed for a statewide referendum is three percent of the number of people who voted in the most recent election.    
    In 2010, 1.8 million votes were counted statewide, which means 55,736 signatures were needed for statewide referendums. In Baltimore County, the number of signatures needed  for a referendum is 10 percent of the votes cast in the previous election In 2010, that number was around 290,000, so around 29,000 signatures were needed.
    “We have a situation where a county issue requires 29,000 signatures. You have a case where that is more than half needed for the state (around 55,000),” said Nalley.
    BaltoCoPetitions wants to create a Referendum Charter Amendment that would lower the number of signatures required for a county bill referendum to three percent and has started another petition drive.
    So if BaltoCoPetitions couldn’t get the required 29,000 signatures to get the transgender bill on the ballot, how does it plan on getting 29,000 signatures to change the county charter? Nalley said only 10,000 signatures are required by mid-August.
    “It’s ironic that it’s easier to change the county charter than it is to change how the county does government,” Nalley said.