The Leisurely Legislators

March 05, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

It's hard to believe that just five weeks from tomorrow the 1995 Maryland General Assembly concludes its 90-day session. In the seven-plus weeks legislators have been in Annapolis so far, little has been accomplished.

This is truly a slow-moving group of lawmakers. With a 40 percent turnover in membership -- possibly a record for the Maryland legislature -- it was assumed there would be a learning period. But that educational phase has stretched on and on.

Parris Glendening has not made things easy for legislators, either. His attention was diverted more than he was willing to admit by the legal challenge to his election from Republican Ellen Sauerbrey. He did little to plan a legislative package for the current session.

That's unfortunate, because under Maryland's strong-governor system, it is the chief executive who sets the tone and establishes the goals for the Assembly. But this time, there were few substantive objectives from the governor.

When an administration feels compelled to include the renaming of the Governor's Mansion (to the pre-Schaefer Government House) in its package of bills, you know gubernatorial aides are desperate.

The governor's slow start created a void in the State House. And yet neither Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller nor House Speaker Casper R. Taylor capitalized on it to set their own agenda.

The two men have been wary of a General Assembly with so many new members. They have used the time to solidify their standing with these newcomers and to try to get a sense of the political direction of these senators and delegates.

So far there haven't been any bellwether votes. Is this a liberal or conservative crowd? We still don't have a sound indicator. Messrs. Miller and Taylor seem content to let the newcomers develop at their own, slow pace.

Mr. Taylor has been speaker for only a year, and he has to contend with an enlarged 41-member Republican minority that could pose a real threat unless he's careful. It would take only 31 unhappy Democrats linking arms with the GOP on an issue and Mr. Taylor would suddenly be outvoted. So the speaker has proceeded with extreme care.

He also has some very green legislators: Most of the freshmen delegates came to the State House without prior lawmaking experience. Some of them are quite young. That has added to the speaker's natural caution.

On the Senate side, Mr. Miller has lost so many veteran legislators as to put a damper on the chamber's rambunctious nature. That only one speaker would stand and denounce the governor's controversial cabinet nominees last week was astounding.

A year ago, the Senate floor would have been awash in speakers having their say, both pro and con, even if they knew the nominees had the votes for confirmation.

Then there's the uneasy political relationship between Mr. Miller and the governor. The two men have been on opposites sides of local Prince George's County battles for years. Neither fully trusts the other.

They started the year harmoniously, but inevitable tensions are testing that uneasy rapport. Mr. Miller voted against the two Glendening cabinet nominations last week -- an unusual move for a presiding officer. Yet he studiously avoided taking the floor to explain his reasons for opposing the governor. He's not foolish enough to make a clear break with Mr. Glendening.

For the moment, Mr. Miller is content to bide his time, strengthening his Senate position while Mr. Glendening learns how to govern. The senator is in no hurry to get out front on issues unless he, too, has a good sense of his new members and feels more confident in his ability to line up a solid majority.

A further complication is the lack of strong committee chairmen in the two chambers. Only Del. Howard P. Rawlings (Appropriations) and Sen. Walter Baker (Judicial Proceedings) are viewed as powerful leaders. The rest are either too new in their jobs, too nice, out of touch with the new political equilibrium or just not very inspiring.

As more and more bills start to hit the House and Senate floors, the pace will quicken and the tone of this legislative session should start to change. For instance, when the budget arrives in the House a major debate on Medicaid abortion language will erupt. Similarly, welfare reform will test liberal-conservative leanings. Votes on political scholarships will show which lawmakers are truly dedicated to altering the status quo -- and which ones weren't serious about their election-year commitments to reform.

The long learning period for new lawmakers is coming to an end. Soon the crucible of the legislative process will force them to show their mettle.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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