In image, a `green'

in action, true-blue

Chairman: A liberal Democrat has toed a pragmatic line as chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, bringing together business and environmental interests.

January 24, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Michael Powell, a business lobbyist in Annapolis, recalls that he received worried calls from clients last summer after they heard that a Democrat from tree-hugging Montgomery County would take over the chairmanship of an important House committee.

Del. John A. Hurson had just been named to succeed their old friend Del. Ron Guns, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, to head the Environmental Matters Committee.

"A lot of the business people simply did not know John Hurson except that he was from Montgomery County," said Powell, who represents a coalition of chemical makers and users. "The environmentalists were doing handstands about his appointment, so that was not an encouraging view."

Powell said he told his clients not to worry: Despite Hurson's "green" voting record, he is a veteran legislator who will listen to both sides and lead by consensus.

Hurson, 48, says that's a good assessment. He's promising to take a pragmatic course in leading the committee, which handles legislation dealing with a wide variety of business sectors - including health, manufacturing, energy and telecom- munications.

"I'm a firm believer in the fact that you cannot make a law do everything you want it to unless you are working with the economic forces," he said. "If it's going against the economic tide, it won't work."

So far, his early steps as chairman have borne out Powell's prediction.

Soon after taking over as chairman, Hurson and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor began prodding environmental groups and business interests to work out a solution to a sticky issue involving citizens' rights to sue to challenge air pollution permits.

A bill that would have brought state law into conformity with federal law had failed in the Environmental Matters Committee last year after Guns linked it to a demand by industry lobbyists for a curb on contested hearings over other permits. As a result, Maryland became the first state to lose the right to run its own clean air program to federal control.

The negotiations were successful, and Hurson has since done his part by rushing the resulting legislation through his committee and the House of Delegates in near-record time. It's now in the hands of the Senate.

Such swift action on a major bill signaled a sea change at Environmental Matters, a committee that has been known for getting bogged down in details of complicated legislation.

Friends of Guns describe his style as chairman as "deliberative." His detractors use less gentle terms. Under his leadership, the committee was known as a steep obstacle for environmental legislation - a situation that suited many industry lobbyists and often left Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration frustrated.

Last July, Glendening found a way to come to terms with Guns: an appointment to a lucrative full-time job on the Public Service Commission. Speaker Taylor turned to Hurson, then his majority leader - a prestigious leadership post but one that carries less clout than a standing committee chairmanship.

Hurson, now in his third term, has picked up the pace of hearings in the committee by strictly enforcing a rule against witnesses reading from prepared statements.

Business leaders still have concerns about Hurson because of his generally liberal, pro-environment voting record.

Del. Alfred Redmer Jr., the House Republican leader and a member of the committee, said he's taking a "wait-and-see" approach to Hurson's chairmanship.

"Guns was a fairly conservative, pro-business legislator and chairman," he said. "The perception is that Chairman Hurson is more moderate if not more liberal than Ron."

Fellow legislators say Hurson is not the typical Montgomery County liberal. He is a loyal lieutenant and sometimes acerbic defender of the more conservative Taylor.

As chairman, Hurson said he will have an open door for advocates on all sides of issues.

Environmentalists, who long felt that Guns' door opened wider for industry lobbyists than it did for them, say they are delighted with the new chairman.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that so far she's been impressed.

"He's committed that he's not going to put some of the bills important to the environmental community in his drawer, as we had happen to us in the past," she said.

Pierno's reference is to a time-honored practice among General Assembly committee chairmen of not bringing up bills they dislike for a hearing or vote.

The Environmental Matters Committee faces an ambitious legislative agenda this year, partly because the change in chairmen has encouraged Glendening to put in bills the committee might not have if Guns were in charge. Some of those issues involve business interests, including a bill that would increase penalties for businesses that violate anti-pollution laws.

Powell, the industry lobbyist, said he expects Hurson to hear out both sides on such issues and, if possible, broker an agreement.

"What he has made clear is that he is going to lead by consensus and look for positions everybody can endorse," Powell said. "I would expect him to lead from the middle."

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