Gov. William Donald Schaefer appears to have won the latest skirmish in the continuing war between the state's chief executive and the legislature.
The two adversaries squared off yesterday over an unusual demand from the governor that legislators personally sign letters of support for building projects that come up for approval by the state Board of Public Works.
Schaefer administration officials say the governor only wants to make sure that the projects have local support because money is scarce in these tough economic times.
But lawmakers argue that Schaefer does not have the authority to require the signatures, mainly because the General Assembly already has approved the projects. They say that instead of seeking reassurance that the projects are needed, Schaefer wants to keep handy a file of signed letters proving that it is the legislature -- and not the Schaefer administration -- that likes to spend money.
Schaefer apparently scored a minor victory when he announced at yesterday's board meeting that nearly all members of the Frederick County legislative delegation had followed his instructions by putting into writing their support for a state building grant to a local community college.
Last May, Schaefer wrote lawmakers warning them that money requested from the board for grants and construction projects in their districts could be jeopardized unless they sign a letter indicating their support.
Legislative leaders were outraged and told members of the House of Delegates and Senate to ignore the request.
Lawmakers argued that the capital projects that come before the board had been scrutinized by both the House and the Senate through a series of hearings, committee studies and recorded votes and had been approved when the budget bill was passed by the General Assembly.
In a letter to the governor late last month, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, asked that Schaefer reconsider his stand.
"We note," they wrote, "that the preparation and mailing of unnecessary correspondence, and the receipt, copying and filing by your office and/or the board's staff, will result in additional expenditure of public funds and resources that should not be tolerated under any circumstances but particularly during a period of financial problems."
But, with that letter in hand at yesterday's board meeting, Schaefer announced that he will continue to demand lawmakers' signatures before approving certain items on the board's agenda.
"We will continue to request and require this," he said. "I'm informing [Mitchell and Miller] now that we are going to continue this process."
"That's absolutely ludicrous," Miller said upon hearing Schaefer's comments. "The governor has absolutely no concept of the legislative process whatsoever. To even suggest such a process is demeaning to him and to the office he holds."
And similar sentiments came from Mitchell, who said his staff was preparing a letter to House members telling them they do not have to sign letters of support.
"[Schaefer] may win this battle, but he'll lose the war," said Mitchell, who threatened to have the House add every public building project to the budget next year.
"Every delegate has the right to write the governor if they want," Mitchell said. "I would rather they not. It's a shame that the governor is trying to make them eat humble pie by having them beg for projects they've already passed."
Schaefer press aide Page Boinest said it is not Schaefer's intention to hold up projects that face bid deadlines, or that could result in the loss of federal funds. But, she added, other projects may be delayed until the required signatures are in hand.
Democratic Sen. Charles H. Smelser, the only lawmaker among the six-member Frederick County delegation not to sign a letter requesting the board's approval of a community college grant, said he supports the project but refused to give in to Schaefer's demand.
". . , I already passed it through the budget process," said Smelser, a member of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Smelser said he is not sure why Schaefer, whose battles with the General Assembly have become routine happenings in Annapolis, is insisting on the signed letters.
"This is the man who a few weeks ago said he wanted to have a better relationship with the legislature?" Smelser asked. "This is a strange way of doing it."