Democracy Dies in Darkness


Pass the buck on end-of-life issues. Let Maryland voters decide.

September 7, 2018 at 5:42 PM

The Maryland Senate meets on the final day of the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

James Giza is a retired Baltimore Police sergeant.

The expressions “the buck stops here” or “passing the buck” are understood as accepting responsibility or abdicating making a controversial decision, respectively. Buck-passing for someone in authority is considered moral or ethical cowardice.

President Harry S. Truman had a desk-mounted sign that stated, “The buck stops here.”

But the genesis of the expressions is less presidential. It was the growing popularity in the 1850s of the card game poker. To counter cheating and potential gunplay, the dealership was passed from player to player, and a marker was used to denote the dealer. If a player demurred at dealing, the “buck,” frequently a knife with a buckhorn handle, passed to the next player. Silver dollars later substituted for the knife, hence the term “buck” as slang for a dollar.

Gambling gave life to the expression, not moral or political decision-making. And gambling is the cornerstone of any amendment to the Maryland Constitution, via a legislature-referred referendum. It is a risky enterprise to ask voters to legislate. As with traditional gambling, there is the hope on the part of Maryland legislators of gaining some advantage or benefit by letting constituents anonymously take care of business in the voting booth.

Former Maryland governors Robert Ehrlich (R) and Martin O’Malley (D) were proponents of buck-passing. Ehrlich failed three times to get a slot machine proposal passed in the legislature. When asked in 2005 by the Capital News Service how to pressure lawmakers to pass his slot machine bill, he said, “The people — it’s the ultimate hammer.”

O’Malley took that hammer and used it. In 2007, he said, “It’s time to let the people decide.” He twice engineered referendums for amendments that put slots on the ballot. Both initiatives passed. The hammer worked. Ehrlich passed the buck to O’Malley, who passed it to Maryland voters.

The same hammer was in play when a bill supporting Roe v. Wade passed the Maryland legislature more than 27 years ago, securing a woman’s right to control her reproductive health.

But Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s well-intentioned proposal for a referendum to embed this right in the Maryland Constitution is ill advised. And it’s not necessary. Given the vote margin defeating the prior anti-pro-choice veto initiative, any nullification law would be defeated and the pro-choice law would stand. Remember, Maryland voters also defeated a veto referendum opposing the 2012 law that allowed civil marriages for gay and lesbian couples. Maryland voters’ support for laws that allow same-sex marriage and for women to obtain abortions is entrenched, so why waste time, money and effort on a referendum for the pro-choice law?

But Busch’s buck-passing could be used for a proposal that has overwhelming public support according to polls conducted in the past two years: the Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act.

Let the voters shoulder the burden in addressing this end-of-life bill. This aid-in-dying proposal failed in the legislature in 2017 for the third consecutive session; it was not introduced in the 2018 session. These initiatives are not a recent phenomenon: The Terminal Illness — Physician Aid In Dying bill was proposed and failed in the 1996 session.

Passing the “buck” allows the voter to play legislator and allows the dice to roll where they may. The Maryland legislature should gamble on this end-of-life bill and live with the result.

Read more:

Jason Booms: Want more democracy in Md.? Make delegate terms two years

Ariana B. Kelly: In Maryland politics, the reckoning on sexual harassment is here

Timothy Whitehouse: Open up Maryland’s political appointment process

The Post’s View: A partisan brawl in Maryland

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