Senate backs power shift

Hogan's bill would give legislators greater say in crafting state budget

Ehrlich angered by idea

If House version passes, constitutional amendment would go to voters in Nov.

General Assembly

March 10, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Looking to shift the balance of power in Annapolis after nearly 90 lopsided years, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would place lawmakers on more equal footing with the governor in crafting a state budget.

A companion version in the House of Delegates has more than enough sponsors to ensure passage, indicating that a constitutional amendment to drastically alter the way state budgets are produced appears closer to passage than at any time in the past decade.

Legislators who support the initiative note that Maryland currently grants vast budget authority to its chief executive, who as a result is widely considered the most powerful governor in the nation.

Under constitutional changes that date to an early 20th-century fiscal crisis, lawmakers are prevented from moving money from one program to another after Maryland's governor proposes a budget. Money can only be added if Assembly members approve a tax to match it.

"We're the only state in the country that operates like we do," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the sponsor of the bill.

Under Hogan's plan, lawmakers could add or remove money from programs as long as the total does not exceed the amount originally proposed by the governor. In exchange, the governor would receive line-item veto authority over the budget, something not currently allowed.

Senators voted 30-16 yesterday to amend the state constitution to allow the changes, one more vote than the three-fifths majority needed. A final vote is scheduled for today. If the House of Delegates approves its version, the amendment would appear as a referendum question on the November ballot. Proposed constitutional amendments in Maryland go directly to the voters and do not require the approval of the governor.

Supporters say the changes are needed to restore strength in the legislative branch as initially intended by the state's founders. They also note that in recent years, as federal and state politics have grown increasingly partisan, governors have not consulted with legislative leaders as in the past.

"The federal government is passing tough issues down to the states," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "As we deal with these fiscal issues, which get tougher and tougher, the members of the General Assembly need to have more say."

Although Hogan has introduced the bill in previous years, many Republicans say they detect partisanship in the air. Democratic legislative leaders are far hungrier now for fresh power, they say, now that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehlrich Jr. controls the state's $23.8 billion spending plan.

Ehrlich bristled yesterday at the notion of giving up control.

"I would hate to think that a lot of the same folks who brought us into this deficit situation now want more power," Ehrlich said. "I have very little sense of humor on this, and that message has been conveyed."

Yesterday's Senate vote largely followed party lines, although two Republicans voted for the constitutional changes: Richard F. Colburn of the Eastern Shore, and Donald F. Munson of Washington County.

Also yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing on its version of the constitutional amendment. With 88 sponsors -- three more than the 3/5 majority needed in the lower chamber -- its chances appear solid, delegates said.

"This is a necessity for having equity between the executive and legislative branches," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Critics say the proposed changes will open the door to a plethora of new programs as lawmakers bend to the will of special interests. The state's coveted AAA bond rating, which allows it to borrow money at the lowest possible rate for governments, could be threatened, they say.

"The more people that have their finger in the mix, the more the potential to grow government," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader from the Eastern Shore.

Sen. George W. Della, a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the bill, predicted confusion at the polls if a referendum appears on the ballot.

"If we send it to the voters, the voters are not going to understand what it is about," Della said. "It kicks open the door for runaway government."

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, a former House speaker, told lawmakers in the House yesterday that he saw no need to change the balance of power. "We have had a triple-A bond rating for 60 years," Mandel said. "If something is working well, why change it?"

But budget experts say that the proposed amendment would give lawmakers greater ability to respond to constituent desires, creating a healthier democracy.

"I think the process here denies people representation," said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, a longtime student of Maryland government who testified yesterday in the appropriations committee. "You ought to be able to go to your lawmaker and say `We want this.'"

Lawmakers have found detours around the governor's powers, said Roy Meyers, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, by passing bills that mandate spending in future years.

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