Miller shows he is firmly in control

After saying he may retire, Senate president continues to drive debate in Annapolis

General Assembly

April 08, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. started the political season with a seemingly accidental slip of the tongue.

He said he wouldn't run again after his four-year term expires in 2010. For a lesser politician, the statement would have signaled the beginning of the end of his influence in Annapolis - and the start of lame-duck status.

But those who have watched Miller lead the Senate over the past three months - as he almost single-handedly stymied plans to expand health care, create the Chesapeake Bay Green Fund and back public campaign financing - know that he will not roll over. Not for anyone or any issue.

Though Maryland has a new Democratic governor, Miller has in many ways driven the debate in the 2007 session, which ends tomorrow. He has set up a 2008 showdown on his pet issue - legalizing slot machine gambling - as well as proposed tobacco, sales, gas and income tax increases. As Miller has sounded a warning about the state's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall, senators have fallen in step behind his behind-the-scenes order not to pass bills this year that cost more than $250,000.

Prime among them is a House of Delegates health care plan that would have expanded coverage to more than 100,000 Marylanders by doubling the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $2. Miller stood in firm opposition, saying any money from a tobacco tax should be used to tackle the budget crisis.

Some colleagues see in Miller - the longest-serving Senate president in the country - a reflection of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was known as a U.S. senator for his bullying but effective ways. Miller appreciates the comparison.

"I'm a student of Lyndon Johnson," said Miller, 64. "I'm a student of Winston Churchill also. I'm a student of Napoleon. I'm a student of Alexander the Great. I'm a student of Julius Caesar. I'm a student of Douglas MacArthur."

In other words, he won't leave Annapolis without a fight. And a victory.

Miller, a Democrat who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties, said his priority is one of fiscal prudence - a mark of his long-term leadership record.

But Miller's focus on slots is also evidence of the senator's power over the legislative debate. The appetite for slots in Annapolis has diminished considerably since Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. failed to shepherd a proposal through the General Assembly. So the talk about slots - with House Speaker Michael E. Busch's stalwart moral opposition an obvious looming obstacle - speaks volumes about Miller's influence. And persistence.

Alternately feared and respected by colleagues, Miller is, since winning the Senate presidency in January 1987, the capital city's power broker extraordinaire. He manages to direct deliberation toward those issues that concern him - and halt discussion of others.

"Mike is the kind of person who doesn't have to talk about his power," said John Stierhoff, a Baltimore attorney and lobbyist who was Miller's chief counsel and adviser for a dozen years. "He has it. He knows when to use it, and more importantly, when not to use it. That is a sign of a true leader."

Some observers speculate that he is Gov. Martin O'Malley's proxy on the tax issue, forcing the discussion so that O'Malley doesn't have to. Miller, they say, is likely also holding back the health care debate until the governor is ready.

"Mike came to Annapolis this year with one thing on his mind - that was not to spend money this year," said former Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Democrat who served for 16 years. "You can say Mike blocked health care reform for this year, but I think another way of saying it is that he stood up for fiscal sanity."

The Green Fund - an initiative to tax developers to raise money to clean the Chesapeake Bay - has also met its end on the Senate side. The governor had indicated that he would have supported it.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the proposal, said Miller's strategy is to hold back enough bills that matter to members that they fall in line next session on a broad revenue package.

"He wants to build up the pressure so there's one big boom," McIntosh said.

But McIntosh said the House has pushed proposals that address policy matters and also bring in cash. She believes Miller's opposition is shortsighted.

"Excuse me, these bills make money," she said. "They don't spend money; they make money."

Busch said he is frustrated by the holdup. "In the final analysis, the disappointment is that we've done nothing comprehensive on health care and the most significant environmental issue has been left unaddressed in the Senate of Maryland."

Another measure felled by Senate inaction would have closed a widely criticized tax loophole for developers. And on Friday, the Senate defeated a costly proposal for public financing of legislative campaigns.

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