Josh Kurtz — Around the Horn: Maryland Register, IRV, Uly Currie

The Maryland Register is not for the faint of heart.

It is not for casual observers of Maryland politics and government — and it’s not for the far-sighted (the print is awfully small). And now, thanks to a recent change of policy at the Maryland Secretary of State’s office, it’s not for you and me, either.

The Register, which publishes every two weeks, is the official newspaper of the state of Maryland. When regulations are promulgated, they appear there. So do foreclosure proceedings and myriad other official notices.

If you want to know what lawyers have been de-barred, you look at the Maryland Register. If you want to learn what guns can be legally sold in the state, check out the Handgun Roster Board, which posts information there. If you want to learn about the Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s proposed rulemaking on hydraulic fracturing, look no further. If you want to know what foods are covered for reimbursement by the Maryland Women, Infants and Children program, they’re listed there. If you want to know when the state Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners is next meeting (Nov. 10), or the state Board of Waterworks and Waste System Operators (Nov. 17), check the Register’s calendar.

For a certain segment of Maryland insiders — lawyers, lobbyists, bureaucrats — the Register is a vital tool of the trade. For years, many have paid to receive the newspaper by mail — the current subscription rate is $225 a year.

More recently, the Secretary of State’s office has been putting the Register’s content online for free, in real time. If you wanted to read the text of a regulation as soon as it was issued, you could see it immediately with the click of a computer mouse.

But that service ended abruptly a few weeks ago. Now the office is putting the Register’s content online a week or so after it is originally issued. To see it online in real time, you now have to cough up $190 a year to have the information emailed to you.

For most people who use the Register, this won’t be such a hardship. That $190 is a write-off, the cost of doing business. And as government outrages go, this one is not so bad.

But it means our government is a little less open than it was a couple of weeks ago. It means that people — or more likely, special interests — with 190 bucks to spare get a leg up on ordinary citizens when it comes to find out what‘s going on, or commenting on, or mobilizing against, proposed new regulations. And you can’t help but worry and wonder where this little diminishment of sunshine will lead.

* * *

They aren’t getting a lot of attention in the state media, but some Maryland municipalities are holding elections a week from today. They each have interesting story lines, and some of the winners could become political rising stars.

But most significant, next week’s election in Takoma Park will provide the Maryland debut of instant runoff voting. That’s something for political junkies to celebrate.

IRV, which is gaining popularity around the country, has already been used in San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Burlington, Vt. It enables voters in races with multiple candidates to rate them in order of preference. The idea is to make sure the ultimate winner is the choice, roughly speaking, of the majority of voters.

Ultra-liberal Takoma Park allows non-citizens to vote, so it should come as no surprise that it is the only municipality in Maryland that has IRV on the books. Takoma Park voters overwhelmingly approved IRV in 2007, but this is the first election in the city since the law took effect where there is actually a race with more than two candidates. That’s the election for a City Council seat in Ward 3, where three candidates are competing for an open seat.

Here’s how IRV works: Voters will list the candidates in order of preference. If no one gets 50 percent of the “first preference” vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and city elections officials tally the number of second choice votes the remaining candidates get and add that to the original total. Eventually the winner is the choice — albeit the second or third alternative — of a majority of voters.

It’s an exciting experiment, and it encourages voters to pay close attention to elections and get to know all the contenders well enough to make informed judgments. Of course, in Takoma Park, where the candidates scramble to stake out the most left-wing positions, it’s often hard to tell them apart.

* * *

Shortly after the 2002 elections, I spoke to a luncheon gathering of State House lobbyists. Someone asked me what I thought about Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) taking the gavel of the Budget and Taxation Committee. I said I expected Currie to be a puppet of Senate President Mike Miller (D). A few people gasped audibly.

It was a flip remark, but it wasn’t unreasonable, given Miller‘s tight control of the Senate and Currie‘s reputation as an amiable man of middling legislative ability who was never, ever, going to rock the boat. I’ve been thinking about that a lot now that Currie’s corruption trial is in its final days.

His lawyers’ tactic — to craft a defense around the idea that Currie was too scatter-brained to knowingly mislead and be on the take — is breathtaking to behold. Whether or not it works, whether or not it keeps Currie from going to prison, the entire General Assembly is taking a black eye — as it does every time a member or an Annapolis insider goes on trial.

In this instance, Miller was either elevating a thief or a fool to be chairman of the powerful budget committee. And as a procession of character witnesses for Currie comes forward to say what a great guy he is — some go so far as to call him a mentor — you can’t help but think, really?

Currie may or may not be guilty in the eyes of the law — and he may or may not be judged so by a jury of his so-called peers. But his real peers, in Annapolis, are guilty of elevating — and tolerating, and celebrating — a guy who clearly had no business being in such an important job.

After every corruption trial involving a powerful figure in Annapolis, there is much hand-wringing and pledges by legislative leaders to clean house, to change the way they do business. It hasn’t happened yet, and sadly, we have little reason to believe that it will this time.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Oh Donna (and Valerie)

Bartlett Pared

Van Hollen’s Lament

P.G. Law

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps

Baltimore Ravin’s

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target