Three legs good, two legs bad

April 06, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

THE THREE-LEGGED stool theory is proving itself again as the 1997 General Assembly marches toward its 90th and final day tomorrow. Think of Maryland government as a stool whose three legs are the governor, House speaker and Senate president. Take any one away and government falters. With all three pegs in place, progressive legislation flows through the General Assembly and onto the governor's desk.

Cooperation among these three officials is of the utmost importance. When one of them tries to circumvent the process and go it alone, it usually backfires.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening got his ears pinned back when he submitted a college-entitlement program for B-average middle-income students without bothering to consult legislative leaders.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor learned his lesson when he tried to whip up his own income-tax cut plan without first working things out with the governor and Senate fiscal leaders.

And Senate President Mike Miller dropped the ball on a plan to legalize slot machines at Maryland race tracks when he failed to gain support from other quarters in the State House beforehand.

Not much of importance happens without the cooperation of all three officials.

There were plenty of signs of trouble, especially in the Taylor-Glendening relationship. The two men could face each other in next year's Democratic primary, and Mr. Taylor started positioning himself to look gubernatorial. He wanted to demonstrate the kind of leadership some find lacking in Mr. Glendening.

He tried to overshadow Glendening initiatives on an income-tax cut and budget. He slowed consideration of some gubernatorial bills, such as the ''Smart Growth'' measure and the HOPE college-tuition plan. And he successfully seized the initiative on campaign-finance reform.

The governor, meanwhile, put together a package with universal appeal: Something for lovers of education, especially in the suburbs (HOPE scholarship, prepaid tuition, more school aid); for his city supporters (a major school-reform package); for the business community (brownfields renewal and an income-tax cut); for environmentalists (''Smart Growth'' and a greenbelt conservation plan), and something for rural folks (right-to-farm legislation).

Eyeball to eyeball

Mr. Glendening is getting most of what he wanted, thanks in no small measure to Mr. Taylor. Only on Smart Growth have the two been eyeball to eyeball, especially when the governor delayed sending down his supplemental budget as a way to gain leverage.

Holding the supplemental budget hostage so late in a session is unprecedented. It precipitated two meetings of the three leaders Friday afternoon, in which Mr. Miller sternly warned the governor of the chaos that could result if the budget isn't wrapped up well before adjournment time.

The chances of Senate filibusters in the final hours on Monday pose great danger to other bills, including some of the governor's own pet programs and some measures of great importance to city and county leaders.

Throughout this session, Mr. Miller has found himself as the pivotal player. While Messrs. Glendening and Taylor eyed each other warily as potential rivals in the next election, the Senate president fashioned his own agenda -- and won most of the arguments.

It is the Senate-crafted tax-cut bill on the governor's desk -- not the Glendening or Taylor plans.

It was also Mr. Miller's Senate budget leaders who prevailed on important fiscal matters. Mr. Miller himself killed any hope for a higher tobacco tax and rammed through most major administration measures with little resistance. This was an exceptional performance by a Senate president in a chamber long noted for its ornery independence.

Time and again, Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor submerged their distaste for Glendening proposals, strategies or comments. They remained focused on cranking out good legislation and avoiding civil wars in their own chambers.

Mr. Taylor's job was tougher. The governor's brinkmanship with his supplemental budget nearly led to a bloody fight between suburban-Washington and city lawmakers. The speaker wisely kept controversial bills off the House floor until the danger had passed.

Despite the nicks and scratches, Maryland's three-legged stool appears to be holding up well. The ''creative tension'' between the two chambers and the executive branch continues to produce good lawmaking and a well-crafted balance between two branches of government.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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