Legislative Evolution

April 21, 1991|By STEVE FEINSTEIN

The 397th session of the Maryland General Assembly is now history.

The governor is licking his wounds and is vowing to bury the hatchet with legislative leaders. Meanwhile, he is preparing a direct appeal to the electorate to garner support for the most controversial of his proposals.

Influential legislators are complementing themselves for maintaining the status quo in a fiscally difficult period. And the public is viewing the entire spectacle with increasing skepticism, focusing on the contentiousness among key players.

Vital policy decisions were delayed -- primarily due to insufficient consensus building early enough in the process. This resulted in anger and frustration among many active participants. Most people involved in the session just couldn't wait for the 90 days to end.

Many observers have summed up the frustrations of recent legislative sessions as a short-term phenomenon, resulting from fast-approaching tough economic times and the inability of the system to respond quickly. Surely, they argue, if this year's issues weren't so polarizing or the personalties so divisive, executive-legislative tensions could be quelled.

These explanations are only partially true. A more basic and irreversible trend over the past 15 years has been the evolution of the Maryland General Assembly into an independent governing body. Our state legislature is growing up and the executive and the public are only now just beginning to realize this.

How did this come about? Two events, set into motion nearly 15 years ago, forced more responsibility on our General Assembly.

First, in Washington was the tendency of four successive presidents -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- to reduce the federal government's role in domestic policy-making through decreased funding and less regulation. State governments and legislatures moved into that vacuum in such policy areas as education, environment, land use and social services.

Now, the most innovative policies come from the state level. For the public, it means that state government has a more direct impact on our lives. For the legislator, it means the job has taken on a policy orientation and is more challenging. In short, the stakes are higher for everyone.

In Maryland, the widely contrasting approaches toward the legislature by our two most recent governors -- Harry Hughes and William Donald Schaefer -- have allowed the legislature to assert itself. Governor Hughes, himself a legislator for over 15 years, philosophically believed in allowing the legislature to have coequal status in policy making. Legislative leaders during the Hughes administration, such as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, were more than willing to oblige.

Governor Schaefer has taken the opposite approach. One of his most consistent complaints has been the gradual erosion of executive authority to the legislative branch of government. But his constant challenging of the legislature's oversight prerogatives were such a sharp contrast to Mr. Hughes that legislative leadership initially took stands to protect hard-won turf.

This has happened elsewhere, too. Kentucky's legislature regained power beginning in 1979 under Gov. John Y. Brown. Three governors later, they have not relinquished it. The same type of contentiousness has been recently observed in Florida, Virginia, Connecticut and Louisiana. In North Carolina, Gov. James B. Martin once called legislators "arrogantly repulsive" for overriding a veto, and legislators responded in kind, claiming he only spoke "to himself, his God and the press."

However, there has been another side to the General Assembly's assertiveness. At all levels, more people are involved in the legislative process and the process itself has become more complicated than ever. Legislative staff has been one of the fastest growing segments of state government. From Fiscal Year 1980 to Fiscal Year 1990, spending for the General Assembly and the two staff agencies which report directly to the legislature (the Departments of Legislative Reference and Fiscal Services) grew from $14.1 million to $46.4 million.

This session, the best example of growth and complexity in the legislative process was the adminstration's social services reorganization bill. This bill took functions in children's services, social services and public assistance and re-ordered them, based either on the ability to attract federal funding or to provide a logical continuum of care. In concept, no one disagreed with the governor's right to reshuffle his own executive branch agencies.

Yet, the process was exceeding complicated. The organizational chart for the proposed Office of Children, Youth and Families included more than 50 individual programs from the existing Departments of Juvenile Services, Education, Human Resources, and Health and Mental Hygiene.

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