Guest Commentary: Transparency Works
By Marc Korman
At former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s last Board of Public Works (BPW) meeting, approximately $200 million was cut from the annual budget pursuant to the BPW’s long-standing power to make such mid-year reductions, a power that has been used by governors of both parties. The governor’s office had announced that reductions would be made, and as an incoming legislator headed to the House Appropriations Committee, I kept visiting the websites of the Department of Budget and Management and BPW to see what the cuts would be. To my surprise, the list of budget reductions was not made publicly available until after the board had made the cuts.
On Sept. 6, the current BPW adopted a proposal to reduce spending in the current fiscal year by $63 million. The proposal had been publicly announced on August 31, with the proposed reductions — then totaling $68 million — spelled out in detail on the BPW’s website.
What changed between January of 2015 and September of 2017? The General Assembly passed — and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed to become law without his signature — The Board of Public Works Transparency Act (HB 368/SB 370), sponsored by state Sen. Rich Madaleno (Montgomery County) and me.
The Board of Public Works Transparency Act is straightforward. It requires that any budget cuts being made by the board be publicly posted on the BPW’s website three business days before the BPW is to meet and act. This gives a chance for stakeholders to weigh in on the proposed reductions.
Sometimes cuts must be made to ensure that the state’s budget remains balanced. But public involvement can lead to a more successful outcome.
Twice now, the provisions of the Board of Public Works Transparency Act have brought about a better result. In 2015, the legislature piloted transparency at the BPW by adopting annual, temporary budget language requiring public notice. Later that year, Gov. Hogan proposed a budget reduction to the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to reorganize the department’s human resources function. However, because the reduction was publicly posted ahead of time, the workforce and other stakeholders had a chance to study the proposal, organize, and ultimately work with the administration to find a better way to implement the changes without the cut.
This most recent success was about the reduction in disparity grants, a program that allocates extra funds to some of the least-wealthy jurisdictions in the state. Because stakeholders had time to study the governor’s proposed reductions, there was an opportunity to explain that some of that funding had been essentially earmarked for education. Given the facts from organized members of the public, the governor reconsidered and withdrew that particular cut and a few others.
The Board of Public Works Transparency Act will not always change the result. In November of 2016, the BPW made $82 million in reductions as originally proposed. The purpose of the law is not to dictate an outcome or prevent the BPW from making necessary reductions. It just ensures that those reductions are made in full view of the public and the possibility of stakeholder input.
When the bill was first introduced, a parade of potential horribles was cited to me by opponents: only lobbyists would benefit because no one else would know to look for the cuts; the state’s bond rating would be negatively impacted; the board will not be able to make reductions. None of these problems has materialized and we have instead gotten a more thoughtful approach to mid-year budget reductions. Because transparency works.
Marc Korman, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County’s District 16 in the Maryland House of Delegates.