Legislative backbone reinforced

April 07, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

PERHAPS the most important bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly this decade made it through the House and Senate over the governor's objections and with plenty of time to spare.

Electric deregulation gained approval, by veto-proof margins, a full 10 days before the legislature's mandated April 12 adjournment.

It took an impressive display of legislative leadership from House Speaker Casper Taylor and Senate President Mike Miller to educate the rank and file about electric deregulation and insist on passage of a bill.

Both Sen. Thomas Bromwell and Del. Ronald Guns did exceptional jobs getting their respective committees to spend hundreds of hours thrashing out the best approach. Two other panels, led by Sen. Barbara Hoffman and Del. Sheila Hixson, crafted a compromise tax-relief bill that levels the playing field for local utilities.

Rarely does a large legislative body independently implement such sweeping measures. It nearly always takes the power of the governor to make it happen.

Not this time.

Gov. Parris Glendening was a nonplayer through most of this ballgame. By the time he got involved, it was too late. The winning runs had scored.

Indeed, the governor's last-inning antics -- demanding huge concessions, threatening a veto, threatening to block bills favored by legislators -- backfired. Both Mr. Bromwell and Mr. Guns were furious at Mr. Glendening's pressure tactics. Their colleagues rallied behind them, and Messrs. Taylor and Miller plotted a course that made the bills immune to threats of a veto.

No surprise

None of this should have surprised Mr. Glendening. Electric deregulation has been a legislative issue for over a year. But he chose to ignore a year's worth of hearings and discussions. He sat back while committees debated the deregulation measures, hammered out amendments and forged a broad consensus.

For once, the legislature was in full control of its destiny.

Mr. Glendening never got his hands dirty. The result is a deregulation law crafted totally by the House and Senate.

It wasn't easy. Last year, deregulation was supposed to be debated and voted upon, but it wound up as hostage in a fight to give Baltimore Gas & Electric the right to form a holding company. Both bills died for lack of a broad consensus -- and a lack of understanding about these technically dense matters.

When the holding company bill became a priority this session (BGE was threatening to move its charter to Delaware), electric deregulation wound up in a holding pattern.

Still, enough groundwork had been laid that the Assembly understood the necessity of passing deregulation bills this year. The Public Service Commission had already set a July 2000 date for the first phase of electric-rate competition. The experience of other states showed it would take 12 months to fully educate the public and still their fears.

Lawmakers didn't buy the panic tactics of environmentalists and consumer groups. They sought certainty in a field where no one knows for sure how things will develop.

But deregulation is sweeping the country. Maryland could not be left behind. It would have hurt economic-development efforts and made Maryland-based utilities takeover candidates.

None of this moved the governor. He never put electric deregulation on his legislative agenda. He weighed in too late to make a difference. His negative approach angered lawmakers. He made a critical mistake.

Filling the void

Elected chief executives should never lose control of pivotal issues. If they do, others will fill the void. At that point, the executive's ability to influence the final outcome is greatly diminished.

That's what happened this time. Maryland's constitution gives the governor enormous powers and a clear upper-hand in shaping the course of legislation. But Mr. Glendening let his clear advantage slip away.

Now that it has happened once, state legislators may strike out on their own again, without the governor's support. They have lost their fear of the chief executive.

Mr. Glendening not only got a black eye for mishandling electric deregulation. He may have strengthened the legislature's backbone considerably.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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