O'Malley takes his time in new role

Legislature steps up as governor becomes acclimated to capital

General Assembly

February 04, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,[Sun reporter]

In his inaugural address, his budget and his first State of the State speech, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley showed a desire to proceed deliberatively and build consensus on how to tackle problems such as the budget, education and the environment.

But Democrats in the legislature -- used to acting on their own during Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term -- are not waiting for O'Malley to take the lead.

Legislators are the ones pushing efforts to ban smoking in bars, abolish the death penalty and establish strict pollution limits for cars -- initiatives that have been adopted in more liberal states. In the cases of the car legislation and the death penalty, the governor has signed on to the legislature's initiatives, not the other way around.

And lawmakers are also working to tackle some of the most complicated issues the state faces. Rather than following O'Malley's lead, the powerful heads of standing committees in the state Senate and House of Delegates are developing long-range plans to cut by half the number of Marylanders without health insurance, revamp the state's tax structure and reconsider electricity deregulation.

"I think what has happened over the last four years is that because there were not specific, well-thought-out policies from the executive branch, the legislature stepped into the vacuum," said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Republicans also say the legislature became more activist under Ehrlich -- though they believe that some measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage and a requirement that Wal-Mart pay more for health care, were wedge issues tailored to the election, not leadership.

Many in Annapolis expect O'Malley to take more of a role in setting the agenda once he acclimates himself. Aides say he is intent on devoting this session to ideas that have the support of a broad consensus to demonstrate to voters his ability to get things done. More divisive policies will come later, after he has had time to sell them to the public, his aides say.

For now, though, legislators are driving the agenda.

It was House Speaker Michael E. Busch, not the governor, who set the goal for reducing the number of uninsured. Del. Peter A. Hammen, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, said he "assembled a number of policy wonks" last summer to start working on a comprehensive bill to improve health care access.

That bill will be introduced Tuesday, he said. His approach focuses on expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for low-income families, along with other measures, including plans to allow employers to obtain health insurance on a pre-tax basis and a requirement that insurers offer coverage for children on their parents' polices up to the age of 25. O'Malley has adopted some of those provisions in his own legislative agenda.

Hammen said O'Malley's chief legislative aide, Joseph Bryce, attended some of the task force meetings, as did Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. But, he said, it is a legislative initiative.

"I am pretty excited about it," he said.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, the chairman of the Economic Matters Committee from Prince George's County, held a briefing last week on electric industry restructuring, a dry and complex topic but one that became the hottest issue of last year's General Assembly session because of sharply rising BGE rates.

He said he is not ready to introduce comprehensive reform legislation but is working to find consensus with Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Finance Committee chairman, on renewable energy programs and other initiatives. But so far, Davis said, that conversation does not involve the executive branch.

"I am hoping at some point in time to sit down, if not with the governor, then [with] Joe Bryce, to discuss this issue and have the same conversation I am having with Chairman Middleton," Davis said. "Hopefully, we can get to that, but we are not there yet."

In the House Ways and Means Committee, Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the chairwoman from Montgomery County, held a briefing two weeks ago on Maryland's tax structure. The briefing was a preliminary step toward a comprehensive tax reform plan, likely to be a major focus of next year's session.

"In some ways it is good, in some ways it is bad," Hixson told her committee members about the tax structure. "But you may get a chance to change it sometime soon."

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader who is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee dealing with taxes, said he is familiarizing himself with the system, looking for loopholes and considering options. He said he sees no need to wait for the governor or the legislature to establish a commission to examine the issue.

"Oh my God, no," he said. "We have a commission. It is called the Ways and Means Committee."

The administration has not been involved, but he said that makes sense, given that O'Malley is still trying to fill his Cabinet.

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