Spectacular? No, but not too shabby

April 13, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

ON THE SURFACE, the recently concluded General Assembly session looked like a winner for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. But underneath this public facade, things looked quite different.

For his part, the governor was quick to call it ''a spectacular session that brought us together.'' He pointed to a 10 percent income-tax cut, a sprawl-control bill, a big school-reform plan for Baltimore, a law to recycle abandoned industrial sites, a college-tuition prepayment bill and a measure to preserve farms and green spaces.

Not too shabby. But spectacular it was not.

The governor lost a number of important measures, including a health-insurance plan for pregnant working women, a tobacco-tax increase and free college tuition for B-average middle-class students. Moreover, the income-tax cut belongs to the governor in name only: His proposal was totally rewritten by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

More disquieting was the widespread legislative unhappiness with the governor's performance. His decision to use the state budget to extort passage of an unrelated policy bill struck a raw nerve among lawmakers. Such a tactic had never been tried. It is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with the legislative session: If lawmakers defy the governor, much of their work could implode.

It also is a mischievous strategy that encourages division and discord within the General Assembly -- precisely what the legislature's leaders strive so hard to avoid.

Instead of bringing lawmakers together, as the governor claimed, his tactics tore at the very fabric of legislative unity. The lingering bitterness over school aid to Baltimore and the counties flowed in large measure from the governor's decision to play brinkmanship with the state budget so late -- and for so long -- in the session.

Lawmakers still haven't adjusted to the Glendening style. At the same time, they are reluctant to take the lead themselves. Thus, an uneasy alliance prevails.

The governor proposes and the legislature grouses, rewrites and reluctantly passes his bills. Then the governor takes credit, which only inflames legislative irritation.

The governor furthered his re-election ambitions with his performance in the past three months. The income-tax cut negates the prime plank of GOP challenger Ellen Sauerbrey. He solidified his credentials with environmentalists and with educators. His anti-gambling stance makes for a nifty sound bite. His pitch for a higher tobacco tax wins favor with most voters.

And yet this session wasn't the home run some of the governor's supporters had hoped for. He didn't emerge as the unchallenged leader of his party. His performance didn't light a spark under lawmakers, or with voters.

In fact, Mr. Glendening was regularly upstaged by both House Speaker Casper Taylor and Senate President Mike Miller. They dominated their respective chambers and displayed keen leadership skills.

Equally impressive was the winning performance of Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. That ought to concern Mr. Glendening, for Mr. Ruppersberger would be a most formidable opponent in 1998.

The Baltimore County executive snared an unprecedented $27 million in new state aid by lobbying the heck out of his own delegation, forming alliances with other county executives and legislators and working closely with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

He seemed to be everywhere, offering everyone a helping hand.

The gregarious Mr. Ruppersberger knows how to leverage his county's voting strength, how to network lawmakers and colleagues and how to craft a compromise on key legislation. Without Mr. Ruppersberger's support, the governor would have lost his Ravens stadium bill last year and his city school-aid bill this year. It was a second straight session of home-run hitting prowess.

Yet if there was an award for unsung hero, it would have to go to Howard P. ''Pete'' Rawlings of Baltimore, who fearlessly risked his political career to revamp the city school system.

Over the past five years, Delegate Rawlings crusaded for change; forced through the legislature mandates to improve management of city schools; stood up against virulent attacks from other city politicians and defenders of the status quo, and led the charge for dramatic overhaul this session.

It was, indeed, a courageous performance and ranked as the high point of General Assembly achievements this year.

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

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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