Look who's calling the shots now in Maryland

April 09, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Now and then, Maryland legislators go off on their own and run the show. Over the last decade or two, mini-revolts have been triggered by various crises: a failing savings and loan industry and public employee pension reform, for example. Both involved bread-and-butter issues and powerful groups of votes.

This year, it was rapidly rising energy prices that drew lawmakers to fix something they had helped to create by deregulating electricity prices.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suffered the political equivalent of a brownout.

Endowed by the state constitution with almost unparalleled power, the governor was relegated last weekend to locking his office door in an effort to avoid legislation passed by the two houses - a metaphor for his administration, critics said.

A more fundamentally political or procedural response will be necessary in the future, unless Marylanders are to see a real change in the way business is done in Annapolis.

Yet this year's General Assembly takeover was broader and deeper than a single issue. It's been four years in the making. From a legislative demand for more health insurance coverage at Wal-Mart to the performance of Baltimore schools, the legislative branch, not the executive branch, has been calling the shots from opening day to this final weekend of the 90-day session.

This is a situation born largely of divided government. Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is the governor. But he has had to deal with an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly. Though he is a former legislator, his old relationships have not been an asset. Many expected him to be a more resourceful executive.

The dynamic is part of the GOP's history in Maryland. Determined to be Republicans first and to avoid any semblance of partnership with Democrats, the party and its governor have spent much of the last four years making those partisan distinctions. That determination tends to ignore the reality that Democrats still have the voting strength.

There have been any number of years when Democratic legislatures differed sharply with Democratic governors. Their policies were treated no more respectfully. They found ways to prevail, or they watched their pet projects founder.

This year's display of legislative power is written off to politics. Of course it is.

But it's more than partisan checkmating. It's not petty jousting. It's all about policy and direction and leadership. A few Republicans have thrown in with the Democrats to stymie the governor on the electric rates issue, and many of them had to be dragooned into voting for slot machine gambling - Mr. Ehrlich's signature initiative - because their constituents don't want it.

The legislative year opened three months ago to the sound of legislators voting to overturn a dozen or more of the governor's vetoes. It's ending the same way.

Democratic leaders have accelerated the lawmaking process, hoping to force the governor's hand on bills he would prefer to kill after the session ends when there is no possibility of an override. He must, under the rules, sign or veto bills within six days - if the Assembly is still in session.

Despite the locked-door gambit, the attorney general says the bills are properly in the governor's hands and must be acted upon. Presumably, Mr. Ehrlich will seek another opinion. A lawsuit filed to block the Assembly takeover of the Public Service Commission could be an answer, or a door locking of another sort.

The financial and political stakes at the heart of all this are enormous.

Legislative leaders have seized a major role in bargaining with the power industry to find relief from a 72 percent increase in electricity costs. For leverage in these talks, they passed a bill that threatens to block a merger of Constellation Energy Group and Florida's FPL Group. The whole ball of wax is on the governor's desk.

Under the old pace and power alignments in Annapolis - Democratic from top to bottom - a governor could almost always kill bills with impunity. If they didn't get to his desk at all, it wasn't because of a locked door.

Still, future governors - Republican or Democratic - will face an Assembly willing to use its authority.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.com.

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