So negative

April 17, 2003

DID SOMEONE drop a veto pill in the Annapolis water supply? Suddenly, state government lurches toward the Big No, as if members of the General Assembly had completely forgotten the public interest when passing legislation in the last session.

Yet that is hardly the case. Those who wonder what's spiking veto fever should look to personal and political influences.

The responsibility for deciding which bills to veto and which to sign falls to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who seems overly eager for the opportunity to veto. And that's too bad.

He should adopt a more measured approach; the bills in question have broad significance, ranging from raising taxes to regulating health insurance to the stewardship of state worker pensions.

Governor Ehrlich may have ignited the veto fever when he began promising to kill various tax bills after having agreed to taxes on corporations and property owners; indeed, he now says he will oppose or veto most if not all of them. But a veto now will damage important programs - and people.

He says he wants a study of government in Maryland, which is a perfectly appropriate objective. But he should avoid political gestures - cutting without regard to which agencies or individuals deserve it - at least until his review is complete.

Similarly, he should set aside an appeal from the state's pension board to cancel the Assembly's decision, by a nearly unanimous vote, to send the board more expertise.

The pension trustees have made admirable changes in their operation. They've hired a sorely needed professional money manager and begun a retraining exercise to emphasize their fiduciary responsibilities.

This board controls a $25 billion fund affecting 89,000 retirees and 186,000 active members. How dare it reject more help? Governor Ehrlich should reject the veto request from his friend, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. To oblige him would be a potentially damaging indulgence; pensioners and the system's relationship with the Assembly could suffer.

While he's at it, Mr. Ehrlich should put a stop to an attempt by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to overturn the Assembly's effort to refocus the giant insurer. Pique plays a role here, too. The Blues wanted to become a for-profit operation and sell themselves to a California company. The Assembly and the insurance commissioner, Steven B. Larsen, said no.

Officials in Delaware and Washington, D.C., partners with Maryland in CareFirst, suggest the Assembly asserted too much control over the company when it voted to replace a number of board members. Their threat of withdrawing the Blues' trademark is dangled as the cost of allowing the Assembly to exercise its responsibility.

Surely Mr. Ehrlich will want to decide if these control concerns have merit. But he should avoid a back-door attempt to undo the work of Mr. Larsen and the Assembly's affirmation of that work.

Vetoes have their role in government, but they would be a mistake in these cases.

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