Update on Priorities for Week of 3/23/09

Group 236

TO: the LOPP/MD listserv

An unusual number of recipients of these alerts e-mailed me last week as two stories broke about death penalty repeal. One was the story from New Mexico where the legislature passed, and the governor signed, repeal legislation. The other was of course from Maryland where the Governor and some repeal proponents agreed to back the Senate’s death penalty bill to slightly narrow the universe of death-eligible cases in the State. I’m not sure whether people were just noting the stories or expressing exasperation.

At the start of the year those two states, Maryland and New Mexico, were headed for death penalty repeal debates and if you had been giving odds (now that we’re a gambling state) the smart money would have been on Maryland’s so-called progressive legislature to abolish its error-prone, slightly illegal, expensive, and inequitable sanction. A former Wild West state with all kinds of social turmoil didn’t look like the next authority to see reason. Ah, well… Those of us who’ve been around for a while knew that Maryland’s very conservative Senate would be a formidable obstacle and that Maryland’s progressive achievements are always contentious and fragile.

Before summing up what happened in the House last week I note that we have an ELCA state office in New Mexico that helped to end its death penalty. We have congratulated our colleague, Ruth Hoffman, for her work and success. She reported they were so ecstatic it hadn’t really sunk in yet that they’d done it. I hope you can join me in sharing the realization of an ELCA public policy goal by an ELCA SPPO, even though it isn’t in Maryland.

Back to Maryland; the Governor made repeal one of his priorities and that is always a mixed blessing. We usually have more opponents than allies in the arena of human service- and interest advocacy so it’s nice to have a friend in important office whenever you can find one, a friendly legislator, or better, a governor. The downside is that a governor has complicated packages of initiatives and lots of different tools to promote them. If your issue becomes his issue then his strategy decides your issue. The Governor in this case decided to take the Senate President at his word that there would be a clean debate and vote on repeal in that chamber. He miscalculated in my humble opinion, and for a variety of reasons—some of which aren’t visible yet—decided to take what he could get and make another effort another day.

That decision left some of us in the repeal alliance without a cause. Some, notably the Catholics, decided to follow the Governor and support the Senate bill while calling for further discussion on repeal. We did not. Our ELCA testimony is that we want the General Assembly to deal with the report of its own Commission, debate the flaws in Maryland capital justice, and repeal the death penalty.

The hearing was something of a show of public discussion about a decision that had already been made. If you’re exasperated you’re entitled to be; repeal discussion is now at least a decade removed by which time the Commission report will have been forgotten. In the meantime what happened next in the House committee, where there had been votes to report out a repeal bill, is a preview of what that decade will be like. Before the House Judiciary voted to report out the Senate bill their debate was about how to strengthen it to preserve the death penalty, not about how to address any of the legal and justice failings in the death penalty we actually have.

I say this conscious that nearly every news outlet is reporting the bill about to be passed into Maryland law “practically” repeals the death penalty. That is not our view, and we are not alone. The law is so flawed it will be challenged and litigated to death. Death penalty proponents have already vowed to strengthen capital justice once more. Meanwhile nothing that’s wrong with Maryland’s death penalty was so much as mentioned. It’s my view that the effort may have made things worse.

Sometime this week the Maryland House will likely vote on a global warming reductions act, another bill with mixed reviews but which we helped achieve and still support. The story is a good one and I note again that we concur in the criticisms, and have made them ourselves; but this bill, unlike the Senate death penalty bill, actually does something and it‚Äôs helpful and much better than nothing. I’ll let the news story inform you on this one-

Two additional and very important priorities for LOPP/MD are also moving toward passage. The first makes some part-time workers eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. The second increases the benefit a little. Both were overdue in Maryland. Both were subjects of intense negotiation between business and labor. Each represents a consensus that everyone could support. We’re very happy these two bills will pass.

As always, thank you for your interest in ELCA advocacy in Maryland.