Consumer group gives lawmakers grades for their votes

Did your lawmaker make the grade?

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - In school, report cards are the way you measure performance. But kids aren't the only ones who get them.  Now a non-profit consumer advocacy group is handing out grades, trying to pull back the curtain on what happens in the Maryland General Assembly.

The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition has developed a legislative scorecard, handing out grades for the lawmakers whose test is pleasing you with their votes. 

The group made its rankings based on legislator votes on just eight bills from the last session , giving equal weight to votes on the floor of the House and in committee. (To see the scorecard and get more information about the chosen bills & methodology click here )

Marceline White, the executive director of MCRC, says, "It's hard for individual citizens to always know and following during session so we want to do this every year and have a recount and let people know." 

The group is letting Marylanders know where lawmakers stand on their agenda, which included bills tackling everything from foreclosure related issues to identity theft and even a tax on tobacco. 

"Just like an educator, we'd love to have everybody have a passing score," White said.

While MCRC says 80 legislators got perfect scores in their book, others didn't fare as well.  Six lawmakers received grades that constitute an "F" on the group's report card. 

ABC2 News found Delegate Don Dwyer at the bottom of MCRC's class with a 44 percent.  The grade was given before the lawmaker made headlines in August for his role in a drunken boat wreck on the Magothy River.

After repeatedly contacting Dwyer for comment, we visited his office in Annapolis, wanting to know why the legislator voted against bills that MCRC says would create a foreclosed property registry, a financial education commission and give the state more power to regulate mortgage lenders.

ABC2 had even more questions about Dwyer's motivation after looking at a campaign contribution database supplied by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. 

The non-profit, non-partisan group's www.followthemoney.org website indicates Dwyer's biggest campaign contributor was a finance company.  The group's research also indicates "Finance, Insurance and Real Estate" as providing the biggest contributions to Dwyer by economic interest.

Dwyer never responded to our requests for comment, even after we provided specific questions regarding his votes and his campaign financing.  Although he wouldn't talk, other lawmakers at the bottom of MCRC's list were immediately happy to answer our questions after just one email requesting comment.

"If you can't stand here and defend the votes you make then you don't belong in the business," said Cecil County Delegate Mike Smigiel .

Smigiel scored a 48 percent on the MCRC report card, which he considers flawed in its math and methodology because the group scored lawmakers on votes it considered crucial in committee and gave them equal weight to house votes. 

"I think they need to be called out, they need to change the way they do it," he said. "It's a flawed system."

Smigiel has won consumer awards and points out he even voted in favor of five of MCRC's eight targeted bills.

"Many of the bills I've put in are consumer oriented, they would never give consideration to many of the bills because they're conservative," he said.

The MCRC system is without question subjective.  But the organization is clear that it had its own legislative agenda and created its rankings based on legislation and corresponding votes it considered crucial to the process. 

White says, "MCRC's focus is on building and protecting the finances of of low-and-moderate income families in Maryland. There are many admirable bills that may help be beneficial that we simply don't have the resources or ability to work on. We prioritize in our work and scorecard those issues that we believe will best expand rights or strengthen protections for vulnerable families."

Lawmakers critical of the scoring are quick to point the subjectivity of the report card, highlighting they believe some votes counted are misleading. 

For example, "anti" votes on MCRC's report card for a tax on smokeless tobacco were counted based on votes for the overall state budget bill, a massive piece of legislation that included many items in addition to that tax.

Anne Arundel County Delegate Steve Schuh , who got a 54 percent, says he would have done the report card differently.  The Republican lawmaker, who also voted with MCRC five times, says the group needs to include more bills to paint a more accurate picture. 

But he applauds their efforts to hold those in Annapolis accountable, saying, "I don't take the report card as mean spirited or with malice.  I think they have eight issues that are important to them.  The scores are the scores.  I supported the ones I supported and I opposed the ones I opposed and that's okay."

But even those who opposed some of MCRC's key bills

voted in favor of one of their top priorities.  20 lawmakers with the lowest scores, including Schuh and Smigiel, all supported House Bill 1374 in its final vote. 

The bill, which gives people facing foreclosure the chance to work with their lender through mediation, directly impacted Glen Burnie's Lisa Bolster. 

"If it wasn't for that, I'd be one of the statistics," Bolster says.

After losing her job last year, Navy veteran Bolster struggled to pay her modest mortgage.  But that bill kept her afloat and allowed Bolster to keep her home with a modified mortgage. 

"There's no law that says I have to keep my house but thank God there are laws that are put in place for people that really want to work," she says.

As Bolster works to pay the bills, lawmakers will be laboring in the next session, but will they be looking out for you? 

MCRC's executive director hopes so, wishing their report card will encourage dialogue between her group and lawmakers at the bottom of the list. 

"I think they need to go back and do their homework and try to get a better grade next year," White says.

ABC2 contacted the six lawmakers at the bottom of the MCRC list for comment.  Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio 's schedule didn't permit time for an on-camera interview but she expressed confusion about her grade on the score card, noting she voted in favor of MCRC's priority bills in all but one instance. 

Delegate Mark Fisher sent us this statement about the report card:

"The methodology used by MCRC is troubling. Here are my thoughts and concerns: MCRC counted Committee Votes and Floor Votes which shows their overall lack of understanding of the legislative process.  Bills can, and often do change throughout the legislative process.  Consequently, the only vote that should "count" is the final floor vote within a chamber - which in this case is the House of Delegates.  The only exception to this rule is when Bills are "killed" by a Committee Vote since the Committee Vote is the "final" recorded vote on a bill in a particular session.  This "double counting" not only shows their lack of understanding of the legislative process, but also discriminates against members on the Committees of jurisdiction, whose scores could be lower than a member who is on another committee - and votes against the bill only once.  In the House of Delegates this process skews the scoring in favor of members of the Appropriations and HGO Committees.  Every legitimate advocacy organization in Maryland measures only floor votes, except for MCRC."

What bills were scored on the report card? Click here for a look.

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