In the soporific language of the Maryland ballot, constitutional amendment question six does not sound compelling, but the late-blooming debate over the budget issue puts the question in more dramatic terms.
Partisans of the proposed amendment claim it is a simple case of insuring that Maryland's governor carries out laws enacted by the General Assembly. But opponents have called it a "dose of lethal poison" that will allow a reckless legislature to enact greatly increased state spending and force up taxes.
The question, which grew out of a constitutional confrontation between former Gov. Marvin Mandel and the General Assembly in 1974, is whether the assembly can require the state to spend specific amounts of money for programs it has enacted.
It should not pass, and if it does pass, everybody is going to regret it later on," said acting governor Blair Lee III. "I don't want anybody to say that I didn't want anybody to say that I didn't warn them," he said.
"In a year when voters are getting themselves all agitated for or against these weird proposals out of California," they have largely ignored the question raised by the proposed state constitutional amendment, Lee said. Most of the debate has been carried on by politicians, whose relative powers would be effected.
"It really comes down to whether you think Maryland is a monarchy or not," said Del. Ben L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City), who supports the proposed amendment. "One person should not be able to stop a program in Maryland that has been passed by its representative body," he said.
Unlike the law in most states, if the Maryland governor fails to fund a program, the legislature cannot easily add funds to the budget to insure that the program goes forward.
Because of this, the governor may stand in the way of a program the General Assembly has enacted by failing to provide money to pay for it.
The proposed constitutional amendment was prompted by a series of events in 1974. The General Assembly passed a bill establishing the amounts of money foster parents should be paid. Mandel signed the bill but did not provide the money in the following year's budget to carry out the law's requirements. The General Assembly's leadership took mandel to court, where they lost. They then drafted the porposed constitutional amendment.
Sen. C. Lawrence Wiser, who opposes the amendment, sees it as a dangerous erosion of the governor's power over the budget, which is stronger in Maryland than in many other states. The current system was adopted in 1916 "after the legislature went hog wild spending," said Wiser.
The General Assembly will be easy prey for various interest groups, which will get their programs funded by legislative mandate, Wiser said. "The legislature can just pick up one program at a time and guarantee funding. They're off the hook," he said. "They're not responsible for allocating scarce tax dollars each year for programs."
Cardin dismisses charges that the legislature would be so irresponsible. "We've operated under the thought that this was the law for almost 100 years and it never happened," Cardin said.