State House faces unrest

January 10, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

ON THE surface, this looks like a fairly routine 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly that formally convenes this morning.

But look just below the surface and you'll find a set of variables that holds the potential to make the next three months unpredictable and explosive.

For starters, there's the underlying dissension in the Maryland Senate, where discontented members tried to knock off longtime President Mike Miller last month.

The coup attempt failed miserably. Indeed, it never really got off the ground. The putative challenger, Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County, failed to heed a classic word of advice for coup-plotters: Make sure you kill the king. Otherwise, there could be hell to pay.

And, indeed, there will be repercussions because the plotters badly missed their mark. Republicans, for starters, will lose their place at the leadership table. That's for taking part in this sputtering revolt.

Gloria Lawlah of Prince George's County, who made telephone calls to senators on behalf of Mr. Bromwell while on a trip to Africa, will lose her subcommittee chairmanship on the budget panel.

And Mr. Bromwell, while escaping the loss of his chairmanship -- the powerful Finance Committee -- could yet lose jurisdiction over pet legislation, including health-care issues and racing.

Mr. Miller has alienated some colleagues during the record 14 years he has run the Senate. In that time, he's made few changes in leadership ranks. That leaves plenty of ambitious senators feeling like outsiders.

But never underestimate the Senate president's survival instincts. He's a master of the political game. As soon as dissidents started making phone calls, he knew. An effort to align black senators against Mr. Miller quickly evaporated.

Mr. Bromwell was hardly the ideal insurgent for shiny-bright lawmakers. He, like Mr. Miller, is a throwback to the days of political machines and "good ole boy" politics. As one good-government type lamented, it was a choice between "a redneck from Clinton and a redneck from Parkville."

Nor did it help that Mr. Bromwell had others lead the fight for him. He let Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich, or senators or lobbyists make the phone calls to round up votes -- John A. Pica Jr., former Gov. Marvin Mandel, former Mandel aide Maurice Wyatt, Bruce Bereano. Hardly a reassuring list of pleaders.

When Mr. Bromwell realized his insurgency was going nowhere, he dropped his challenge. Mr. Miller could have sent him to the back benches but decided to settle for a less disruptive resolution.

Still, the discontent with Mr. Miller remains. His enemies have made themselves known to him. That could lead to unexpected outbreaks of rebellion. On any bill.

The chummy Senate atmosphere that Mr. Miller has carefully nourished could disappear occasionally this session. It could be get-even time, for both sides.

Meanwhile, another ticking time bomb may be planted soon in the legislative corridors -- by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Next week, the governor delivers his State of the State address and releases his $20 billion budget. It will be chock full of goodies, thanks to a bountiful economy and a flush treasury.

But there are alarming signs boom times may be ending. The governor's budget doesn't anticipate a stalled economy or a recession. It's another expansionary budget.

Legislators expect the Glendening spending plan to be in the 7.5 percent to 8 percent range -- well above the legislature's own overly optimistic 6.9 percent spending limit.

Indeed, the expected growth in personal income is just 6.2 percent -- not taking into account any plunge into a recession.

But what if the bad news we've been hearing from corporate America is an accurate harbinger of things to come?

What if lawmakers midway through their session get worried about the governor's tendency to boost spending in ways that mean even higher expenses in later years?

There could be a clash of wills between two budget panels that tend to worry about such things and a governor who knows his time to make a difference by pumping up spending is running out.

Then there are the governor's priorities, which are sure to clash with lawmakers' desires. A growing number of legislators want more surplus funds spent on early childhood education instead of new school buildings. They champion greater health-care coverage for low-income adults. And they want to pressure the governor to put more resources into helping both delinquent juveniles and ex-offenders on probation.

But it could be on another issue that lawmakers and the governor make the loudest noise: the tobacco settlement money.

This past year, Mr. Glendening withheld tobacco funds for cancer research at Johns Hopkins Hospital and University of Maryland Medical System. The rationale -- which no lawmaker bought -- was that the money couldn't be disbursed because of litigator Peter Angelos' refusal to settle his dispute with the state over legal fees.

It was a lame excuse in a lame effort to pressure Mr. Angelos to reach a compromise with state officials on his fee, which could be as high as $1.2 billion.

Lawmakers are very unhappy that the governor would hold cancer research funds hostage. Expect efforts to force the governor's hand. And expect counter-reactions from the governor.

This could get nasty. Mr. Angelos has plenty of friends in the legislature. They might try to make things uncomfortable for the governor if he won't release the cancer research funds.

All this is playing out even as legislators engage in flowery oratory on their opening day.

Give them a three or four weeks, though, and that surface air of calm could give way to a stormy and agitated 2001 General Assembly session.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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