Maryland's governor ranks second to none in chief budget power

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On days like today, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is no doubt thankful he was elected to lead Maryland rather than Texas, Colorado or Arizona.

In those states, the chief executive proposes a budget that is usually tossed aside by lawmakers, who start from scratch and frequently ignore what the governor wants.

But Maryland is unique in the nation in the strength of budgetary powers granted to its governor.

This morning, Ehrlich is scheduled to unveil a $22 billion spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

He will then sit back and watch as that framework pretty much becomes reality.

In no other state do lawmakers play such a limited role in the budgeting process - and, by extension, in setting policy through what state government does. Even the president of the United States has less say over the federal budget.

Senators and delegates here cannot add money to the budget, and they can't move funds from one program to another.

Their tools are few. They can cut and threaten. They can write mandates into law. Sometimes, they can only beg.

"The constitutional arrangements make him the strongest," said Ronald K. Snell, director of the economic and fiscal division for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Maryland's procedure is rooted in nine-decade-old reforms that sought to pull the state from a fiscal crisis.

Maryland faced a large deficit in 1916, writes Roy T. Meyers and Thomas S. Pilkerton in a research paper done at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the legislature took the blame for overspending.

"Reformers responded by amending Maryland's constitution," Meyers and Pilkerton write. "In their 'executive budget' system, they gave the governor more power than is now permitted by any other state in the nation."

Many states underwent similar reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Snell of the national legislative group, but "they generally did not shift to giving the governor as much authority as you did."

Most other states operate on a federal-style system, said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at UMBC. Proposed executive budgets are chewed over, split up and sent to legislative committees, where advocates can argue for changes.

"It's the kind of politics you see down the road in Washington," said Norris, adding that special interests have far fewer opportunities to make their pitch in Maryland.

"If they have the ear of the governor, then they get what they want," he said.

Some states boast of rich traditions in which strong legislative branches largely ignore what the governor wants.

"Texas has a classically weak gubernatorial institution," says Royce Hanson, the former dean of the school of social sciences at University of Texas at Dallas and now a Montgomery County resident.

The budget there is largely written by the lieutenant governor, also the Senate president who runs the legislature's joint budgetary committee, Hanson said.

Some states are tinkering with budget powers, but none appear to be going to a Maryland model, said Nicholas W. Jenny, a senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., which specializes in state fiscal reviews.

"If anything, the shift is to put in place supermajorities to either raise taxes or simply pass a budget," Jenny said. "That takes some power away from the legislature and the governor. ... That puts minorities in the legislature in strong positions, because they can block anything."

Maryland, too, will debate a change in authority this year.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would allow the Assembly to add money to programs without exceeding an overall level set by the governor.

To take effect, the amendment would not only have to be passed in the legislature by a three-fifths majority, but receive voter approval through a ballot-box referendum, a difficult process.

"The elected representatives of the people really are powerless when it comes to funding of state programs which are important to them," said Hogan.

He worries that his idea might get caught in partisan accusations that Democrats are looking to curtail authority now that they've lost the governor's mansion for the first time in two generations.

Hogan, first elected as a Republican, said he backed the idea when Democrats were in control. "This is about the future," he said. "It's not about now."

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