FROM ANNAPOLIS THIS WEEK comes an interesting report by staff writer David A. Maraniss on how much difference a touch of leadership and a change in the political climate can make in the legislative process. It is the story of an important bill that got mangled and left for dead at last year's General Assembly -- and that seems to be moving along rather smartly in both houses so far this year. We refer to legislation that would revise Maryland's pension system for teachers and state employees by reducing retirement payments and limiting cost-of-living increases.
To appreciate the contrast in the two legislative efforts, return with us now to those unthrilling days of yesteryear, when the acting governor was Blair Lee III and the state senate president was Steny H. Hoyer -- and when both were running for governor. They were feuding just a bit over how to handle the pension bill and, like many other election-bound colleagues in the state, had to wonder how their stands on this issue would play in the hustings. The answer, they kept being reminded by the teachers' and state employees' unions, was not at all well, if the bill passed.
But this year the new governor, Harry R. Hughes, and the new legislative leaders, House Speaker Benjamin Cardin and Senate President James Clark Jr., got together early in January and worked out an agreement to push the measure through the Assembly: There would be no amendments added to the bill unless all three of them consented. Then, along with the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that would consider the bill first, the three met twice with representatives of the teacher and state-employee unions to hear objections and work out a few changes.
The result is a bill that the Senate passed yesterday and the House has tentatively approved -- a sound formula designed to rescue the state from a pension system that, according to one study two years ago, could bankrupt the state by the year 2020 if left unchecked. The new system would not affect current employees unless they voluntarily join it; and there are some incentives for those who so choose. Many who opposed last year's measure seem content to support this one -- which should be good news to Maryland taxpayers. But given the history of so many measures in the closing days of any General Assembly, you'd best withhold applause until enactment.