The glory, the power, the perks Md.'s governor wields more influence than chiefs of most states

August 09, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron

The race for governor, shouts one candidate, is about character. It's about gambling, says another. No, says a third, it's about an extremist agenda.

Such will be the rhetoric as the race for governor heats up and the Sept. 15 primary and the Nov. 3 general election approach.

But, in the end, the campaign to be the state's chief executive is largely about power and how a candidate would use it. For, short of being president, serving as governor of a state is perhaps the most powerful political job in the country.

Think our governor doesn't have much influence over things? Think again, and consider some of the governor's powers.

* The budget. More so than in any other state, the governor of Maryland enjoys unquestioned control over the state's budget, which this year totals $16.5 billion. In most states, as well as in Congress, the legislative branch can add to a chief executive's budget. Not so here.

"In this state, the legislature can do one thing and one thing only - it can cut," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It can't add. It can't move money around."

In many areas of the budget, the governor has no choice about spending, as state law requires certain programs to be funded at certain levels. But many others live or die at the governor's discretion.

Say you don't see the need to enforce hunting and fishing laws. If you're the governor, you can just leave the money for the natural resources police out of your next budget. Ditto for smokestack-pollution enforcement. Or the state's office that promotes film and television production. On and on the list goes.

* Economic development. The governor holds enormous power over millions of dollars in state grant and loan funds that are used to encourage business growth. While the legislature has veto power over some awards, many more are controlled strictly by the executive branch. You think a new corporate plant with a couple thousand jobs might be a nice addition to the area you live in? It's the governor who has the public-sector inducements to help make it happen.

* Schools and roads. The governor dominates the procedure by which the state doles out tens of millions of dollars for building and fixing schools every year. The General Assembly has some political influence over how the money gets spread around. But it's essentially the chief executive who decides which school gets a new roof and which spends another year using buckets to catch the leaks whenever it rains.

Likewise, roads. Tired of commuting on a clogged highway that desperately needs widening? Tell the governor. It is the chief executive (with advice from bureaucrats, and occasional prodding from legislators) who lays out the schedule for road repair and construction - a huge public works expenditure that totals more than $530 million this year.

Many other state projects are built at the governor's discretion - ranging from sewer plant upgrades and adult day care facilities to community mental health centers and water projects.

* Public policy. The governor, who has enormous influence over votes taken by the legislature, often sets the agenda on important policy questions. On gun control, for example, first Gov. William Donald Schaefer, then the current executive, Parris N. Glendening, were able to push major pieces of legislation through the assembly. At the other end of the process, Glendening has vowed to veto certain bills - including any proposal to bring slot machines to the state - making the issue a nonstarter in the legislature. You might applaud that stance. Or, if you're one of the thousands of Marylanders who make the trek to Delaware, New Jersey or West Virginia to play slots, you might consider sending some of your gasoline bills to the governor's office.

* Redistricting. While the public pays little attention, drawing the lines that define the state's legislative and congressional districts can make or break political careers - and shift the balance of power between political parties.

In this case, the Maryland Constitution gives the General Assembly a major role in the process: The governor submits a redistricting plan, and the legislature has 45 days to change it. That means the whole matter is subject to the political machinations of the legislature. It is conceivable, for instance, that a band of 16 senators - out of a total of 47 - could filibuster against any changes to ensure that the governor's redistricting plan goes into effect. There are 15 Republican senators. Under the GOP's dream scenario, the party picks up one or two more Senate seats in the fall elections, and a Republican wins the governor's race. Then, at least in theory, the GOP - despite being a minority party - would be in a position to completely redraw the political geography of Maryland before the elections in 2002.

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