Is Maryland a microcosm of effective representative democracy or the partisan divide?
On the surface, Maryland's democratic model wouldn't raise any eyebrows. One of the oldest functioning democracies on the planet, the most current version of the state's 1776 constitution was adopted all the way back in 1867.
Still, the Old Line State has its quirks. Its powerful governor, tight structure and election cycles encourage effective lawmaking, but beneath a system structured to respect diverse viewpoints is what legislative scholar Alan Rosenthal calls "essentially a one party state." Dominated by Democrats, Maryland is one of about 18 to 20 states run predominately by one party or the other.
A more powerful governor
Maryland's chief executive is one of the most powerful in any state system for one reason: the governor sets the budget. According to Delegate Kumar Barve, "In Maryland the governor has much more power since he writes the operating budget. We can only take away from it. Only he can add." Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley agrees: "In Maryland the budget situation is not really in the hands of the legislature. We can't move money and we're required to operate with a balanced budget."
Another aspect of the governor's power, according to Rosenthal, is the executive's control over the redistricting process. Every ten years, he explains, "it essentially means that the governor is in the driver's seat, giving enormous influence over individual legislators during the redistricting."
Structured to succeed
Despite its limited power over the budget, the Maryland legislature has one enormous advantage over other states as far as creating legislation and pushing a coherent agenda. Elections for both the House and Senate take place simultaneously every four years. Explains House Majority Leader Michael Busch, "It's a natural cycle; in my estimation it's better to have four years than two. As the legislature is settling in for the second year, members aren't looking over their shoulders."
Rosenthal believes that that two year terms, as in the Federal House and in most states, disrupt the legislative process: "two years tears it up and prevents a focus on legislation. In Maryland you can look forward to a three to four year period to get stuff done."
The smallness of the legislature, particularly relative to the federal government, is also important to its efficient functioning. "The power is consolidated in fewer decision makers," explains Brinkley. "The president of the Senate goes to the committee chair-men and says what we'll do. They only need 24 votes to pass."
The structure of Maryland's committee system encourages a smooth legislative process as well. In many states, the number of committees leads to fragmentation. Committees are gateway for all legislation, and Maryland's current system, consisting of four standing committees in the house and six in the Senate, fosters a cohesive process. By contrast other states have 20 to 30 committees, on anything from alcoholic beverages to insurance, explains Busch.
Maryland's more streamlined system is based on Rosenthal's 1968 report for the Eagleton Institute, and Rosenthal thinks that it remains effective: "Maryland probably has the fewest committees of any state legislature, so all are important." The House Committee on Environmental Matters, for instance, can debate knowledgeably about a wide spectrum of related issues.
The power vested in Maryland counties, which are a far stronger political unit than in most states, also sets the state apart. "Counties are more autonomous, although they rely heavily on state assistance," explains Brinkley. "As opposed to having the state provide direct assistance, we tend to pass along revenue." Overall, Rosenthal sees the various facets of Maryland politics working well together. Although the political system seems more consolidated and more efficient than many states, Barve explains that, "The American system of government isn't designed to be efficient. It slows the process down so that all stakeholders can have an input." Rosenthal agrees. "We have a process that allows diverse points of view to be heard. It's an open, deliberative and penetrating process."
So, with strong systems and governing structures, why is Maryland another in a long line of one-party states?
The perpetual minority viewpoint
As a Republican in perpetual minority, Brinkley sees the system differently. For him, it is far from open; "there's a political imbalance which leads to very powerful committee chairmen. We're outnumbered three to one." Not surprisingly, Busch nevertheless sees a highly functioning democracy. "Our debates have always been pretty passionate—even in a one party state," he explains. "We never broke down on party issues; we broke down on regional issues, such as tobacco." Busch also considers such divides as urban versus rural and Washington suburbs versus Baltimore suburbs as encouraging democratic debate. "Essentially you have less partisan rancor because you're only dealing with one party," Rosenthal says. "The process is smoother."
Brinkley, however, paints a different picture. "There's a budget tap dance," he exclaims. "The law says $15.4 million must go to arts funding, so it was put in the budget, then reduced by $2.6 million." He sees a similar process with money taken from the transportation trust fund, where mandates to repay $50 million a year have not been fully honored.
The four years prior to 2007 have seen a rare situation in Maryland, a split government, due to the 2002 victory of Republican Robert Ehrlich as governor. The period was marked by contention and a string of vetoes over such issues as the living wage, the expansion of Walmart and election laws. Often, however, the heavily Democratic legislature overrode those vetoes. Busch sees this conflict as part of a broader Republican push; "When Ehrlich came in he tried to build a party system based on ideology."
Yet, even with a return to Democratic dominance, he sees a united agenda threatened by budgetary constraints. "The problem in Maryland today, as in many states, is fiscal. It's the fact that there's a structural deficit," notes Rosenthal.