Why veto this Y2K bill?

May 19, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THERE was never any doubt that Gov. Parris Glendening was going to veto a Y2K bill promoted strongly by the state's business community. It was the way he did it that drew so much attention.

Ordinarily, the governor releases his vetoes all at once. Not this time.

Mr. Glendening held a special ceremony last week to announce his rejection of a bill designed to give businesses limited protection concerning the computer software problem commonly called the Y2K bug.

He made a big show of this veto, essentially accusing business interests of trying to deny consumers any legal recourse in the event of horrendous accidents as a result of computer problems that occur when 2000 arrives and some older computers read the date as 00 and interpret it as 1900.

The governor didn't bother to hold a public hearing -- as his predecessors routinely used to do -- before issuing this veto.

In fact, he has abandoned the longtime practice of staging a public debate to give both sides a final chance to make their cases.

His high-profile veto of the Y2K bill left business leaders thinking he was trying to demonize them. He called the legislation "very radical," though the bill had passed the General Assembly by wide margins and with broad leadership support.

It would have provided businesses with a partial shield against Year 2000-related lawsuits -- but only if the companies had taken extensive preventive actions. Companies still would have been liable if a consumer suffered physical damage, as House Speaker Casper Taylor pointed out.

The governor's decision was cheered by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, a beneficiary of the veto. The group worked hard to defeat the measure in the legislature and had sought a gubernatorial veto.

The trial lawyers are not without influence in the governor's office. During last year's election campaign, the group contributed $12,000 to the Glendening-Townsend ticket and spent $99,982 on an advertising campaign to help re-elect the governor.

The veto took on the coloration of a quid pro quo. Mr. Glendening has gained a reputation for helping his friends and punishing his enemies. On the Year 2000 business-protection bill, he had a chance to do both. And he did.

Of course, the governor said he was protecting consumers. The trial lawyers -- who could reap enormous fees from any major Y2K litigation -- wrapped themselves in consumer advocacy, too.

But the veto follows a trend set by Mr. Glendening of presenting himself as a friend of consumers, environmentalists and organized labor. It also follows a trend of Mr. Glendening aping the actions of the Clinton administration.

For instance, President Clinton also is promising to veto a Y2K business-protection bill, if Congress fails to give consumers broad rights to sue businesses.

The day after the veto event, Mr. Glendening held one of his bill-signing ceremonies. National labor leaders were invited to praise the governor for enacting a collective bargaining bill for state employees.

It's no accident these same leaders are major backers of Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid. They could be of immense help in securing a Cabinet post for Mr. Glendening should Mr. Gore ride the nation's economic prosperity into the White House.

In the last legislative session, Mr. Glendening took a more strident stance with legislators. He made demands and refused to back down. It was often couched in all-or-nothing terms. That's the way he approached the Y2K bills.

One such measure shielding local governments from lawsuits was signed because backers yielded totally to the governor's demands. Business groups didn't, so he vetoed their bill.

If Jan. 1 arrives without any computer disasters, no one will remember the governor's veto.

But if computer problems arise and Maryland courts are littered with lawsuits, political and business leaders may start pointing fingers at Mr. Glendening.

It could turn out to be a veto that benefits him in the short term but holds dangers in the longer term.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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