Why is Glendening so full of smiles?

April 08, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

PARRIS Glendening may not have many fast friends in the General Assembly but he sure knows how to get results.

Once again, as the state legislature wraps up its 2001 session tomorrow night, Maryland's chief executive is the big winner.

His agenda wasn't sweeping or wildly controversial. He did push the envelope on his pet Smart Growth program and his budget.

He once again carried water for organized labor.

And he presented himself as the financial Big Daddy of higher education, a move widely seen as a possible prelude to Mr. Glendening maneuvering himself into a well-paying job as chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

Not only did the governor lard state college campuses with oodles of money -- a nearly 10 percent increase in operating funds and hundreds of millions in building projects -- he also made sure that USM's board of regents would be Glendening-friendly when the next chancellor is picked.

In what many lawmakers saw as the epitome of chutzpah, the governor placed on the board his personal lawyer and two longtime loyalists. Add to that the other regents who regularly side with the governor and it looks like a slam-dunk for Mr. Glendening when the vote is called.

And just to make sure the next chancellor has some real muscle, the governor promoted a collective bargaining bill for 9,000 mostly blue-collar campus workers that centralizes power on labor issues in the chancellor's office -- not the campus presidents' offices.

Not only does that move stab at the heart of the university system's vaunted autonomy -- the bill forces USM to unionize, even though its workers have rejected unionization in the past -- it makes a mockery of the work of the Larson reform commission.

This blue-ribbon panel had recommended -- and the governor and legislature had agreed -- that the university should delegate decision-making to the campus presidents and not the chancellor.

The collective-bargaining bill, though, wipes out some of those gains. Labor relations will be centered in the chancellor's office.

While this made many legislators unhappy, they didn't dare oppose him. He's got the power, and he knows how to wield it.

No wonder Mr. Glendening won nearly every battle. Not only could dissenting lawmakers be punished by losing money for local projects or patronage jobs, they risked re-election jeopardy when the governor redraws legislative districts in coming months.

Time is running out for Mr. Glendening. One more General Assembly session during his final term. So he tried to shoehorn all he could into this year's budget, even though he blew most of the state's accumulated surplus.

"There was too much stuff in the budget," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, who chairs the panel that had to do the cutting, "but not much of it was junk."

Yet since we live in a world of limits, cuts were necessary to get back to more affordable levels.

In the end, the governor's Smart Growth initiatives were given firm endorsements, including an important plan to buy ecologically valuable land and others to revive older neighborhoods. Public schools received another bushel of construction funds and $30 million for early-education efforts.

There was money for improved foster-care services, expanded drug treatment, a start on probation reforms and a shift in treating delinquent juveniles in community settings instead of horrendously run state detention centers.

And the governor finally got his gay-rights bill approved as well as an enhanced minority set-aside purchasing program. His public transit initiative, while sliced by one-third, is his most progressive effort in this under-funded area.

When he gave his State of the State speech in January, Mr. Glendening spoke of "clouds on the horizon that threaten to destroy our great success and prosperity."

He was referring to social inequities, higher-education needs and environmental protection. He got the progressive steps he sought in all three areas.

But what he failed to note in that speech were the ominous recessionary clouds on the horizon.

Revenue estimates had to be cut back $50 million last month; $150 million in construction projects also were put on hold till December, when we should have a better feel for the impact of this economic downturn.

Mr. Glendening's optimistic, you-can-have-it-all outlook seemed a bit overwrought three months ago. Now, with the economy veering toward recession, his remarks already seem outdated.

Yes, he got what he wanted this legislative session. But he may pay a hefty price in next year's budget for assuming that Maryland's good economic times would continue until he left office.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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