The Governor Is a Bad Influence

By Tim Maloney
Sunday, March 5, 2006

When he speaks to corporate leaders, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) inevitably exhorts them to "get dangerous." It's a strange thing to say to businesses, because most seek to avoid risk, not embrace it. But Ehrlich's meaning is political. He tells business leaders to "get threatening" in dealing with the Democratic legislature. This is not language Marylanders are used to hearing from their governor. But Ehrlich's goal is not so much to govern as to create conflict, often where none exists, between the state's businesses and the largely Democratic General Assembly.

Last fall Ehrlich told the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, "There's going be a respectful clash of philosophical orientations. If you do not play, shame on you. . . . Take a real hard look at your reality, and come November, remember it."

A hard look at the reality would show this: Businesses seek political stability and abhor political volatility. In recent years Maryland's political environment has gone from being one of the country's most stable to one of the least so. Especially in the past three years, the political traits that inspire business confidence -- bipartisanship, predictability, consensus governance and, ultimately, rational and balanced development of public policy -- have declined remarkably.

Since taking office, Ehrlich has introduced an explosive level of political gamesmanship to the business regulatory environment. Nothing illustrates this better than the issue of power plant pollution pending in Annapolis. The legislature is considering bills to reduce the levels of four pollutants ("the 4Ps") discharged from Maryland's coal-fired power plants: mercury, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Last year the legislature crafted a moderate proposal to regulate the 4Ps. Ehrlich attacked it as anti-business, offered no compromise and then worked to kill the bill.

This year, with the election approaching, the governor switched sides. He proposed regulations for three of the four pollutants that were more burdensome to the utilities than the compromise he opposed the previous year. In trying to "out-green" Democrats, the governor created a combustible political environment for two of the state's energy providers, both of which are notoriously risk-averse. Ironically, moderate Democratic legislators will try to repair consensus-building between business and environmentalists on this one.

Combustibility isn't the only political dynamic at work in Annapolis. The administration's frequent tilts to the hard right have proven Newton's Third Law that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Whenever Republicans find a wedge issue that casts Democrats as anti-business, Democrats respond in kind, often with legislation casting Ehrlich as anti-worker. The irony is that Maryland charted a much more moderate course under 35 years of Democratic governors then it has in just three years with a Republican one.

Amid this posturing, outflanking and wedging, governance has gotten lost. Historically, the Maryland legislature has responded to strong executive leadership. Ehrlich has not lost control of the legislature, because as a Republican, he never controlled it in the first place. But he took office enjoying the strong institutional respect the legislature accords a governor from either party, and that he has squandered.

The breaking point was 14 months ago, when Ehrlich called a special session on malpractice reform, then vetoed a moderate bill passed by the legislature, saying it wasn't enough, although Maryland hospitals urged the governor to sign it. The legislature overrode the veto. (Malpractice premiums have since stabilized, and payouts appear to have declined.) Since then, gubernatorial influence in the legislature has been at a historic low. Faced with this reality, Republicans are campaigning for a "veto-proof" legislature. But vetoes are a governor's last resort, after persuasion, reason and compromise -- the real tools of leadership -- have been exhausted. In his 1988 book, "Maryland: A Middle Temperament," Robert J. Brugger wrote, "Marylanders at their best have stood for moderation . . . and a sense of proportion that reminds one of the sailor's heed to both sail and ballast." Perhaps anticipating today's politics, he observed, "The elusive character of Maryland may lie in its search for what we can abbreviate as a middle way, between extremes, where the human spirit thrives."

Between the extremes of word and deed in Annapolis, the search for the middle way continues. Maryland politics need to recover its middle temperament. Maryland business leaders can help. The next time they are asked to get dangerous, they should ask their government leaders to get less so.

The writer, a lawyer in Greenbelt, was a Democratic member of the Maryland legislature for 16 years. His e-mail address istmaloney@jgllaw.com.


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