State funding of court costs endangered

Governor opposes bill in poke at MACO for insufficient loyalty

Setback for Baltimore

`You kill my dog, I kill your cat,' lawmaker explains

February 25, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Playing old-fashioned political hardball, the Glendening administration urged lawmakers yesterday to kill a bill that would require the state to pick up some of the costs of running the circuit courts, a high priority of local governments.

The state Department of Budget and Management opposed the bill, even though the administration had proposed picking up the costs of court masters and juror per diems in legislation rejected last year.

The turnabout is an intended slap at the Maryland Association of Counties, a powerful lobby that has annoyed Gov. Parris N. Glendening by trying to overhaul some of his top-priority initiatives -- including efforts to revise building codes and regulation of septic tanks and to raise teacher salaries.

One delegate, Prince George's County Democrat Joan B. Pitkin, said the governor's action reminded her of the legislative adage: "You kill my dog, I kill your cat."

In written testimony submitted to the House Appropriations Committee, the department explained that while the request "is not without merit," the administration now wants to focus spending on "more pressing public needs." The department estimated the cost of the bill at $28 million over four years.

The administration is opposing the bill even though the state is showing a budget surplus of more than $1 billion. Asked to explain the administration's position, Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester said, "Money's over-allocated."

Although the governor's move is primarily directed at MACO, a defeat or veto of the bill would be a setback for Baltimore, which has long sought relief from the costs of operating its overburdened Circuit Court. The city is a MACO member but has not been active in trying to alter any of the governor's high-priority bills.

"It would have been $2 million in budgetary relief for us, so we're disappointed," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "But I can understand how impatient the governor is for real judicial reform."

The loss of the Circuit Court funding bill would also be a blow to the state's Judicial Conference, which requested the legislation.

"I'm disappointed, obviously," said Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. "It's important to us because it does set out a plan of action that is aimed at the Circuit Courts."

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill offered the governor's official explanation yesterday: Before giving money for circuit courts, he wants to see plans from local jurisdictions on how they're spending their surpluses to help their courts and police.

Election promise

The governor had promised during his 1998 re-election campaign to assume the costs of operating the Circuit Court system around the state -- a vow that was instrumental in securing the endorsement of former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

But Morrill said yesterday, "That was before the governor began receiving so many requests along the same lines. We want to make sure we're not being `piecemealed' here."

He noted new requests by Baltimore and Baltimore County that the state pick up the costs of serving warrants.

An administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the action reflects Glendening's deepening "frustration" with MACO.

Aimed at MACO staff

The official said the action was not directed at specific county executives but at the group's professional staff. "This is an organizational issue," the official said.

MACO and Glendening have enjoyed warm relations in the past. As Prince George's County executive, he became the only elected official to serve two terms as the group's president.

As governor, he has received warm receptions at MACO's annual summer gathering in Ocean City.

The breach over MACO's testimony on several administration bills this legislative session is serious enough that top-ranking aides to the governor have begun referring to it as WACO -- for "Whining Association of Counties."

"They have made several major mistakes with a friendship that has been very valuable to them," the administration official said.

MACO's executive director, David Bliden, said he was surprised that the administration would oppose this year's legislation when its own bill last year was much broader.

He said he "can only speculate about the motivation" for the administration's switch.

MACO seeks consensus

"We've tried very diligently to build a consensus within the county community asking for what we feel are productive and reasonable adjustments to the administration bills on which we have taken positions," Bliden said.

MACO has not come out in direct opposition to the governor's bills, but in some cases the changes it has sought have been sweeping.

"With MACO's support, you don't need any opponents," quipped Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat several days after hearing the group's testimony on Glendening's so-called "Smart Codes" and septic tank bills.

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