Governor's budget powers challenged

Assembly to study amendment allowing it more authority

`A fiscal dictatorship'

April 15, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's legislators finished their 90-day session last week concerned enough about Gov. Parris N. Glendening's ambitious spending plan that they're seriously considering ways to limit the chief executive's extraordinary budget powers.

Over the next nine months, the legislative leadership will study a constitutional amendment that would shift some spending authority from the governor to the General Assembly - with an eye toward putting such a proposal before the voters in the 2002 election.

"This legislature has come to grips with the fact that the Maryland legislature has the least amount of budget power of any state legislature in the United States," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "I believe that we can potentially improve the system."

Lawmakers are particularly upset this year because Glendening offered an initial spending plan that exceeded the state's spending limit and, they say, failed to cover many basic needs, including health care for the poor. They spent weeks publicly badgering the governor to fill in those areas, as well as to provide funds to help senior citizens with high costs of prescription drugs.

"I hope people don't forget when we get back here next January what happened this Assembly session," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of a failed effort for the constitutional amendment in the Senate this year. "In a leaner economy like we might have by next year, there's more of a need for us to have more power."

But supporters of the current system across a wide political spectrum - including the governor and the Senate Republican leader - say making changes would undermine what they view as Maryland's tradition of fiscal responsibility.

"What [the proposed amendment] does is to create 188 new opportunities to spend money," said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening. "It creates no incentive for fiscal responsibility."

Opponents of the constitutional amendment also say the current system ensures adequate fiscal checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.

Maryland's legislature is the only one in the country that doesn't have the authority to choose how to spend money. It's allowed to cut from the governor's budget proposal but not to shift funds within it - leaving the state's chief executive with almost all of the financial power.

"It makes a difference in the balance of power," said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics and one of the nation's leading experts on state legislatures. "There is a great dependence in Maryland on the governor's good will."

The system forces lawmakers to spend months before the annual sessions lobbying the governor - or to bargain with him over legislation during the 90 days in hopes of winning money in his supplemental budgets.

"If you want to get your ideas implemented with funding, you've got to bust your fanny for the nine months before the session," said Del. Mark K. Shriver, a Montgomery County Democrat who recently announced plans to run for Congress.

Shriver helped secure $30 million for early childhood initiatives this session and has not decided whether he would support a constitutional change. "I've found that if you take the time and persuade the governor why something is a good idea, he'll find a way to support you," Shriver said.

But a handful of lawmakers have been complaining for years about Maryland's budget-making structure, which dates to 1916. That's when the state ran up a large deficit, largely because of the legislature's lack of spending discipline.

"I have said that, in my opinion, we have a fiscal dictatorship," said Del. Marilyn R. Goldwater, a Montgomery County Democrat and a House deputy majority whip. "It's not the governor himself, but it's the power that comes with the office."

In 1980, Goldwater proposed a constitutional amendment to give the Assembly the authority to add money to the governor's budget proposal.

Back then, she could barely get a hearing, yet she and other lawmakers kept introducing similar bills year after year.

"What's changed is that this was a very difficult year for the budget," Goldwater said. "Others around here finally are realizing how little power we have over the budget."

After Goldwater left the Assembly for several years, other legislators began introducing the amendment proposal, including former Sen. Laurence Levitan when he was chairman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.

This year, Hogan decided to take up the effort. A majority of the Senate backed his amendment proposal, but the measure fell four votes short of the required 60 percent.

The amendment would let the Assembly increase spending items in the governor's budget proposal or add others, as long as they didn't exceed the total amount submitted by the governor. The chief executive also would have a line-item veto over any of the Assembly's budget additions.

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