Democrats fire warning shot at GOP Lawmakers expect hardball on budget if Sauerbrey wins

'It's going to be war'

She would hold stronger hand in business regulation

Campaign 1998 Ttc

October 26, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With Gov. Parris N. Glendening locked in a tight race with GOP challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Democrats controlling the State House are threatening to play hardball should they have to contend with the first Republican governor in three decades.

"If she were to get elected, and puts in an extremely doctrinaire administration, it's going to be war," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Senate budget committee. "The only way for her to be successful is to be collaborative."

Both sides agree on two things: The governor's race is too close to call, and Democrats will continue to control the General Assembly after the Nov. 3 election -- a reality that would sharply limit Sauerbrey's ability to leave a conservative stamp on significant portions of the Maryland law books.

Sauerbrey understands that.

"I think we're going to have to be very careful," she said in a recent interview. "You can't fight too many battles or you don't have a chance of winning. We'll have to pick our battles very carefully."

Should she win, the fiercest State House battles could be fought over her budget proposals.

The state Constitution gives Maryland's governor some of the broadest budgetary powers of any chief executive in the country. The Assembly can only cut the governor's spending plan, not add to it.

In past years, Sauerbrey and other legislative Republicans proposed major reductions in a variety of programs. But she has given little hint of where she might cut if elected governor.

On the campaign trail, Sauerbrey has proposed tax cuts coupled with significant new spending proposals, a fiscal plan that critics say would create a billion-dollar hole in the state's $8 billion general fund budget.

Sauerbrey predicts the tax cuts would spur economic growth, generating revenue to make her plan work without major spending cuts. But some economists and legislators remain skeptical.

Democrats are warning that Sauerbrey, if she oversteps and slices programs they deem crucial, could provoke high-stakes, two-party showdowns reminiscent of budget battles in Washington in recent years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller characterized Sauerbrey as "ultra-conservative but not mean-spirited." He said, however, that the legislature would not hesitate to stand up to her.

"If, for example, she would not fund certain priorities of the legislature, then the legislature would certainly cut funds from the programs she wants until we could reach an agreement," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

"I could fully envision a situation where we didn't get a budget, and we would have to go into special session," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of the legislature's leading liberal voices.

But that kind of hostage-taking strategy might fall flat in the Assembly and splinter the Democratic Party, predicted one leading Republican.

"We have shown, in the last couple of years, there is a working majority in the House that consists of Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats that is capable of governing," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House Republican whip.

"I don't think [the Sauerbrey agenda] will be something the Democrats can just destroy or marginalize," he said.

Around the country, new Republican governors have had mixed results dealing with Democratic legislatures. In Virginia, Gov. George F. Allen had to watch as Democrats killed seven of his initiatives in a single bloody week in 1995.

Sauerbrey, who has sought advice from Allen, said she is focused on the election and is wary of sending signals that she is overconfident. But quietly, she has begun planning a first-year legislative package and developing strategy for working with the Assembly.

The package would likely incorporate campaign-trail proposals on education, criminal justice and taxes, Sauerbrey and Republican lawmakers said. She has proposed, for example, hiring more teachers, revamping the state's juvenile justice system and cutting taxes for some retirees.

Such an agenda -- which would not touch on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control or labor rights -- would send a conciliatory tone to the Democrats, Republicans said.

Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Prince George's Republican who hopes to be the next GOP leader in the Senate, said Sauerbrey would have to be pragmatic as she picks her issues.

"If she sticks to her themes, we can accomplish much," said Madden, who has been helping Sauerbrey plan legislative strategy.

On another front, Sauerbrey is promising, if elected, to quickly launch an overhaul of state regulations to make them more business-friendly, an effort that would not require legislative approval.

Within the bureaucracy, Sauerbrey could refocus a host of crucial state enforcement and oversight functions, largely performed outside public scrutiny.

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