Glendening's absolute power

March 04, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

GOOD BILL, bad year."

That's how one senator described the defeat last week of a bill that would have given Maryland's distorted state budgeting process some much-needed equilibrium.

Budgeting, Maryland-style, remains a one-man show. When he submitted this year's $21 billion state spending plan, Gov. Parris N. Glendening became the most powerful state executive in the nation.

That's because no other governor has the muscle given to Maryland's chief executive by our state constitution. Legislators can cut the governor's budget, but cannot add to it or move money around. That leaves the governor with all the high cards.

It's been this way every year since 1916. But times change. What seemed essential in the early part of the 20th century may not serve Maryland citizens as well in the 21st century.

Under the last two governors, manipulative budget games have reached new levels of absurdity.

Both William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Glendening have submitted budgets far beyond the legislature's self-imposed spending cap. Lawmakers must trim the budget to get under the cap.

But then the governor compounds matters by taking these budget savings and recycling them in the form of supplemental appropriation requests. Once again, legislators must assume the role of the ogre as they cut back the governor's wish list.

"I'm tired of always playing the Grinch," explained Donald F. Munson of Washington County to his Senate colleagues this week.

It didn't matter, though, because the governor had bought off enough votes with spending and reapportionment promises to doom the budgeting reform bill, which would have given voters a chance to change the process.

That's the way it works in the State House. If a legislator wants something added or altered in the budget, the only way to do it is "go upstairs" to the governor's office and make a deal.

The ones groveling are always the senators and delegates. The one sitting on the throne is always the governor.

What the budgeting reform bill sought to do was "restore some semblance of balance," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, one of the most diligent and knowledgeable budgeteers in Annapolis. "The system is tilted toward the executive."

Indeed it is. That's intentional. It was designed to prevent the kind of unrestrained legislative spending that had created steep deficits in the early part of the last century.

Today, the governor is required to submit a balanced budget. And because the legislature cannot add new spending items, there's no longer a chance of running up those kinds of deficits.

The problem is that the governor now has too much budgetary power. At budget time, Maryland transforms itself from a democracy to an autocracy.

Mr. Glendening, for instance, intentionally underfunded ongoing programs in this year's budget by $157 million. Moreover, there's no budgeted money to help seniors and the poor pay for prescription drugs. There's no money to give pay increases to underpaid workers who take care of the severely disabled.

And there's precious little legislators can do about this.

The bill's proposed changes would not have jeopardized Maryland's conservative budgeting tradition. Instead, legislators would have gained the ability to add money to programs, shift money around and create new spending items. But the overall budget figure submitted by the governor could not be raised.

Additionally, the bill would have given the governor a countervailing power -- the right to veto any item added by the legislature. The executive would still be firmly in charge, but the legislature would finally have an influential role in deciding priorities.

As it stands now, said Mr. Neall, "We don't have a vote." The governor makes all the priority decisions. The question, he continued, is "do we want to be a fiscal partner in this budget?"

Apparently not. Enough senators were frightened by the thought of altering the status quo -- or worked out a deal with the governor's minions -- that nothing will change.

So if Mr. Glendening wants to ignore the crisis in mental health clinics, or the state's growing Medicaid deficit, or the lack of drug treatment programs, he has nothing to fear. The legislature can't stop him.

Likewise, a future Republican governor with strong conservative leanings could eliminate all arts funding, or cut out Smart Growth money, or curb the state's role in school-construction financing. And the legislature would be unable to alter those objectives.

No other state legislature in the United States is so impotent. No other state legislature fears taking a larger role in shaping budget priorities.

In Maryland, the governor continues to play the role of the all-powerful king, and legislators get to don their costumes as court jesters.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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