Glendening in shadows this legislative session


YOU might call it the curious case of the disappearing governor. Just past the mid-point in this year's General Assembly session, Gov. Parris Glendening has yet to become fully involved in legislative activities.

It's almost as though he's focused on something else -- like positioning himself for a possible high-level Washington appointment after the 2000 presidential election.

Low-key approach

The administration has taken a low-key approach toward this 90-day meeting of state lawmakers. Occasionally, the governor speaks out -- often by letter or formal announcement -- on a subject. But he has yet to use his office as a bully pulpit on behalf of legislation.

He's not the first Maryland chief executive of recent vintage to apply a laid-back strategy.

Harry Hughes (1978-1986) did much the same thing: Introduce bills, explain them to legislators and then step aside so the General Assembly could process measures without much overt interference.

Back when Mr. Glendening taught political science at the University of Maryland, College Park, he probably preached to students the virtues of such an orderly progression. It is textbook democracy.

Yet life in the State House fishbowl is much more disorderly. The imposition of executive direction is usually a necessity.

Maryland's constitution calls for a strong executive. The governor is expected to lay out the agenda for lawmakers. After all, he is much better positioned to be a leader than 188 members of a legislative body with widely differing viewpoints.

Lots of bills bear the governor's sponsorship this year. The governor, though, has taken a decidedly soft-sell approach, preferring to remain in the background while legislators decide the fate of these proposals.

If bills are killed or harshly amended, the governor may be the last one to know. He has not been active in this pivotal part of the legislative session.

Indeed, on what could be the most important measure of the year -- electric deregulation -- Mr. Glendening has been a secondary figure.

As of mid-December, the governor hadn't received a briefing on negotiations among regulators, consumer and environmental activists, businesses and utilities over the difficult transition from a regulated power environment to a competitive marketplace. When Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper Taylor submitted their bills to free utilities of government price regulations, the governor wasn't listed as a sponsor.

This is odd. Such major bills are almost always written and heavily promoted by the governor's staff, keeping him in control of the situation. He plays the pivotal role in reaching a compromise. He can exert his powers to make sure his version of the bill is passed.

By leaving the bill-writing and amending to General Assembly leaders, Mr. Glendening lets others shape this key piece of legislation. By distancing himself from this controversy, he increases the chance that the legislature cannot resolve its differences on electric deregulation by mid-April.

So far, the governor has met with all parties involved in the deregulation fight. He recently sent a five-page letter outlining his pro-consumer, pro-environmental concerns.

But he didn't write the House or Senate bills, and he isn't proposing specific remedies to overcome objections from some of his allies to a free-market conversion.

There's still time for the governor to jump in with concrete proposals. But it's too late to change the general direction of electric deregulation. Mr. Glendening's impact on the final product may be relatively modest.

When he delivered his state of the state address at his January inauguration, Mr. Glendening talked about preparing the state for the 21st century. He's doing that on education, his top priority. But on a number of other concerns that could prove controversial -- transportation, economic development and electric deregulation -- he's been less eager to take the lead.

Lawmakers have noticed this remoteness on the governor's part. It could affect how they deal with Mr. Glendening in the final, all-important weeks of this year's legislative session.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 3/07/99

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