By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Maryland's experiment with divided government will come to an abrupt end in the week ahead as the predominantly Democratic General Assembly convenes today and the state's first Republican governor in a generation departs next Wednesday.
The arrival of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is all but certain to diminish the partisan rancor that filled the four-year term of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), as lawmakers pursue a progressive agenda that includes pent-up initiatives to expand access to health care, clean up the environment and make higher education more affordable.
But as the partisanship subsides, many longtime Annapolis observers expect the old rifts of one-party rule to again come to the fore: squabbles based on regional, philosophical and personality differences and natural tension between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The conflicts could be exacerbated by projections of budget shortfalls for years to come, making it more difficult to get things done than party labels alone might suggest.
"I think it's going to be contentious, just like when we had divided government," said Barbara A. Hoffman, a former Democratic state senator who is an Annapolis lobbyist. "Just because the governor is a Democrat, the legislature is not going to roll over and do what he wants."
"That's how it was with Parris Glendening. That's how it was with William Donald Schaefer. That's how it was with Harry Hughes," Hoffman said, ticking off Maryland's past three Democratic governors.
Ehrlich, a former congressman from Baltimore County, was elected governor in 2002, becoming Maryland's first Republican chief executive since Spiro T. Agnew's departure in 1969. Ehrlich succeeded Glendening, who earned a reputation for using the powers of his office to get what he wanted from lawmakers but was hardly a popular figure at the end of his eight-year tenure. Ehrlich remained more popular across the state but had far less success with the legislature.
O'Malley, who will be sworn in a week after the General Assembly's arrival, will be likely to experience the same kind of honeymoon often afforded new governors, lawmakers say.
But he will be a newcomer in a State House where two strong-willed Democrats preside over the Senate and House of Delegates and do not see eye to eye on a variety of matters, most notably the legalization of slot machine gambling, a divisive issue that dominated Ehrlich's tenure and could be back on the agenda.
The General Assembly's Republicans, emboldened and remarkably unified under the GOP governor, also face fissures in their caucus. Already, members have waged leadership battles in both chambers over how best to remain relevant: by cooperating with Democrats or drawing sharp contrasts with an eye toward the 2010 elections.
Some GOP lawmakers pointed to issues, such as combating gang violence and clamping down on sex offenders, on which they hope to work with O'Malley and the Democrats. But the party will also have another task, said incoming Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (Frederick).
"The environment certainly isn't of our choosing, but you play the cards you're dealt," Brinkley said. "Our mission is to hold the ruling party's feet to the fire."
Democrats retained 33 of the 47 Senate seats in the November election and gained six seats in the House, bringing their total to 104 of the 141 members. But party members in both chambers span the spectrum from socially conservative rural lawmakers to liberals representing urban areas.
Since his election, O'Malley has urged a spirit of cooperation that he said was absent during the Ehrlich years.
"We are going to have our differences within the party . . . and that's all right," O'Malley said at an annual Democratic unity luncheon in Annapolis yesterday. "When we do, we need to get back to that Maryland way of realizing compromise is not a dirty word."
At least one facet of the Ehrlich years will almost certainly subside: what O'Malley has dubbed "government by veto override."
In his four years, Ehrlich vetoed 86 Democratic initiatives, including high-profile bills to raise the minimum wage and effectively force Wal-Mart to spend more on health benefits. Lawmakers overturned about a quarter of those vetoes, with override votes breaking down largely on party lines.
But Ehrlich's vetoes of several other controversial bills stood, as Democrats were unable to pull together the 60 percent votes needed to override him. Those included bills to: grant medical decision-making rights to unmarried couples, including same-sex partners; mandate minimum compensation for employees of state contractors; and add a surcharge to the corporate income tax to hold down college tuition.
Under a Democratic governor, such initiatives stand a much better chance of becoming law. That prospect has emboldened Annapolis activists such as Vincent DeMarco, the leader of a group that pushed the so-called Wal-Mart bill, who is back this session with an initiative to expand subsidized health care by doubling the state's tobacco tax.
"I think this is just a tremendous opportunity for progressive causes, including expansion of health care," said DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative.
Yet DeMarco's latest initiative also highlights some Democratic fissures that could be on display this session and in years to come.
Leading Democrats have said expansion of health care is among their priorities, and 78 lawmakers have pledged to support DeMarco's plan. Among those cool to it, however, are O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), both of whom have voiced reservations about raising the tobacco tax.
O'Malley has questioned the wisdom of using the tax to pay for health care because the revenue it generates is expected to decline as more people stop smoking. But aides also acknowledged a reluctance to embrace any kind of tax increase early in a term in which O'Malley is trying not to be pulled too far to the left by others in his party.
Without a Republican governor to fight, some analysts predict moderate Democrats will feel freer to exert themselves.
"In the first year or two, I think you're going to see a resurgence of the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party feeling they have a bigger voice to share," said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic operative who served in the Glendening administration.
Other issues are expected to break along regional lines. For instance, there is a stronger desire among lawmakers from the Washington suburbs to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation and projects.
"You've always had contentious debates between Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, the urban areas and the rural areas," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The flow of legislation will also be greatly affected by the prickly relationship between Busch and Miller, who once again find themselves at odds over slots. In separate interviews last week, Miller said legalization of slots at racetracks should be a "no-brainer." Busch said the issue "doesn't need to be addressed this session."
Annapolis veterans will also be watching closely to see what kind of working relationship develops between Miller and O'Malley -- "the old bull versus the Young Turk," as Morrill put it.
Miller, who has held his leadership post for two decades, has offered plenty of unsolicited advice to O'Malley through the media and at gatherings of interest groups.
Miller said he sensed that O'Malley might be too cautious with his first term and not take advantage of his honeymoon period. If he tried, Miller said, O'Malley could probably get a gas tax increase through and perhaps slots as well.
"You sense there's an opportunity for him," Miller said. "And for him to be timid at this point in time would be a major lost opportunity."