ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers in Annapolis began the 2004 General Assembly session with a decisive message to Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. – the governor’s constitutional power is not immune to the voice of the Legislature.
For the first time in 15 years, the House and Senate passed legislation over the executive’s objections. Some analysts have characterized the votes as evidence of future political power plays, rather than as an instance of philosophical positioning.
The Senate began the Assembly session with the first of a series of votes to override Ehrlich’s veto of three bills. From a long list of vetoed legislation, lawmakers chose an energy efficiency standards act, a pension bill and a local liquor licensing bill, none of which qualified as top legislative priorities.
The three bills passed the Senate by the end of the first week of the session, and the House assented to the override by the middle of the second week.
Partisan acrimony was evident from the first day of the annual 90-day term as Senate Republicans staged a protest over a proposed change in Senate rules.
Local governments have railed against Ehrlich’s proposed budget for its more than $160 million in cuts, and education proponents protested the lack of complete funding for the Thornton education reforms. In addition, a coalition of lawmakers was organizing opposition within the last week to challenge the governor’s revised slot machines approval bill, which he submitted Monday night.
The partisan bitterness may actually be just another symptom of a two-party government.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the change in dynamics between the governor and the General Assembly were largely to blame for the tension over the vetoes.
“In previous years we’ve had a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the Assembly,” Miller said. “The Democrats were more careful then not to offend the governor.”
Prior to Ehrlich’s term, Maryland last saw a two-party government during Republican Spiro T. Agnew ‘s term from 1967 to 1969.
Barry Rascovar, a political columnist for the Gazette newspapers, agreed with Miller’s assessment.
In a single-party government, he said, “The debate is about the issues, about the positives outweighing the negatives on a piece of legislation.”
The recent history of Democratic administrations, he said, had lessened the hostility between the governor’s office and the Legislature, and decreased the governor’s need to lobby lawmakers for support of his policies.
Ehrlich did not do enough lobbying to protect his vetoes, Rascovar said.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, remembered the last time the Legislature overturned a governor’s veto in 1989.
Then-Delegate Frosh, and three other legislators, lost their leadership positions as punishment for not upholding then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s veto. That so-called “eye-drops bill” gave optometrists the authority to administer eye-drops to patients for diagnostic purposes.
Before Schaefer, Democrat Harry R. Hughes saw his veto overridden by a Democratic Legislature in 1985.
Vetoes or successful passage of bills over executive objections are usually rare, said Donn Worgs, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University.
“What you usually find is a threat of a veto or threat of an override is usually sufficient to convince one side or the other to negotiate and compromise in a way that they would otherwise not have been inclined,” Worgs said.
Vetoes are typically more common in two-party governments due to partisan politics, Worgs said. Single-party governments typically see more cordial relations between the executive and the Legislature.
For Republicans, the veto votes this session were all about politics.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said partisan politics motivated the largely party-line vote, and accused Democrats of “bucking the popularity of the governor.”
Democrats, however, said genuine policy disagreements between the General Assembly and the governor motivated lawmakers to strike down the vetoes.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Ehrlich failed to adequately support his reason for exercising that power.
On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans were critical of the Democrats’ choice of where to take a stand.
House Minority Whip Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, chided Democrats for not pushing for what he called “signature legislation.” Specifically, O’Donnell criticized the majority party for delaying a vote on a vetoed piece of legislation that would close corporate tax loopholes.
“If you’re going to pick bills to override the governor’s veto, pick signature bills . . . bills that are truly important to you,” O’Donnell said.
Stoltzfus said the reinstitution of the vetoed bills, specifically the pension bill, represented “a horrendous policy switch that has implications for the future.” -30- CNS-1