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Senate's President Lays Down Law

By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 1997; Page B01

When state senators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties gathered recently, all agreed on one crucial point: They would not support a plan to increase aid to Baltimore schools unless the state's 23 counties got similar treatment.

Then Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. walked in the room.

"I told them that they had to be state people, not county people," said Miller, a resident of Prince George's County and president of the Maryland Senate. "I told them that if they wanted to be county people, they should have stayed home and run for the county council or something."

It was an effective speech, as would later become evident.

And it was typical of Miller, a savvy and brash politician who enjoys portraying himself in Annapolis as a simple country lawyer. Largely through force of personality and old-fashioned politicking, Miller ensured Senate approval last week of a special $254 million aid package for Baltimore, several lawmakers said. Similarly, he prodded the Senate to turn down requests from the Washington suburbs and other counties for $332 million in extra education funding.

Although Miller (D) swears that "I didn't lobby anyone," he made his position clear. And that really was enough. When the vote was tallied, 33 senators, including three others from Prince George's, sided with him.

One of the state's longest-serving Senate presidents, with a decade under his belt, Miller has accum ulated such power that he can seriously handicap any measure just by saying he opposes it.

For example, Miller, whose district includes large numbers of tobacco farmers, announced before the 90-day legislative session began in January that he would do everything in his power to derail Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to double the state cigarette tax. Many lawmakers pronounced the tax increase dead on arrival, and actions in the General Assembly on Friday appeared to bear them out.

But Miller is far from omnipotent in the State House. He boasted early in the session that he could amass enough votes to approve slot machines at horse-racing tracks, despite Glendening's promised veto. His plan went nowhere.

Early on, he expressed doubts that the state could afford Glendening's proposed 10 percent income tax cut. But as it became clear that the governor and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) were intent, Miller became a crucial player, crafting his own plan in the Senate.

Miller's position on school funding this year has put an especially bright spotlight on him. Miller, a 54-year-old lawyer from Clinton, faced criticism from some quarters last week for not sticking up for his own county and the Washington suburbs. But others defended him as a fiscally responsible elected official watching out for the best interests of the entire state.

Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) called Miller's and the three other senators' actions "an embarrassing and disgraceful vote."

Not everyone sees it that way. Miller "believes at looking at things more on the statewide level," said Del. James E. Proctor Jr. (D-Prince George's), who supports the county funding plan. "He's concerned about what's going to be best for the entire state, as opposed to just the local approach. But everybody knows he's taking care of Prince George's."

Curry and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) were among the leaders of the effort to get counties more money. A few weeks ago, from his perch overlooking the floor of the Senate, Miller made it clear who controls the state.

"This is the body that the power and the policy flow from," Miller said, "not back in Towson, Upper Marlboro or Rockville or places like that."

But Curry said Miller sent members of the "Big Seven" -- leaders of the state's six largest counties and Baltimore City -- mixed messages. At a Big Seven meeting a few weeks ago, Curry said, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) asked Miller whether it would be helpful for the Big Seven to put together a funding proposal for the county schools.

"Mike asked us to do so," Curry said. "And as soon as we did, he starts to savage the effort."

Miller said in an interview yesterday that he resented the fact that the county executives would ask for so much money without having to figure out a way to pay for it. He called their efforts an attempt "to raid the state treasury."

"That's not policy. That's thievery. It's the taxpayers' money," he said, his voice rising. "I don't like the county executives coming up here asking for all this money so they can go back home and give people raises."

Miller said Baltimore's situation is more desperate than that of any of the state's other jurisdictions. Its school system has the highest dropout rate and, by far, the lowest average standardized test scores. He said that he doesn't oppose extra money for the counties but that finding a way to pay for it is as important as asking for it.

He said Glendening (D) has reassured him that he plans to submit a supplemental budget in a few days with significant new revenue for county schools.

Miller said he made his position clear to his fellow senators. But he said he twisted no arms. Miller, other lawmakers say, rarely bullies for one side in legislative battles.

Instead, he plays more of the role of the old-fashioned father who lets his quarreling kids settle disputes by strapping boxing gloves on them and taking them to the garage so they can duke it out while he referees and makes sure no one gets hurt.

Maryland gives its Senate president and House speaker great power. They appoint people to powerful committee chairmanships and can remove them at will. They and the committee chairmen also set and control the agenda, meaning they can easily kill members' bills.

Although Miller did not make overt threats, he made it clear that he expected senators, especially those in leadership, to think and act like guardians of the state rather than parochial politicians, some members said. And with some, he made the issue one of loyalty to him and the Senate rather than to the county executives.

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the failed amendment to add the extra county funding to the Baltimore bill, said: "I think he used that to put pressure on certain members. This was a test of loyalty to him and to the institution, as opposed to the county executives. I think he used that to his advantage internally."

Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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