For a roses governor, everything's coming up weeds A casualty of history-and of impatience

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 11, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

FOR A GOVERNOR who likes his news sunny side up, William Donald Schaefer is having a terrible time. The news is all bad.

In one sense Schaefer is caught up in the velocity of history, a victim of events over which he has no control. In another, he is a casualty of his own impatience and is likely to do something silly.

Those around Schaefer say he is not a "happy warrior" right now, and he's mad about anything that looks bad. Don't mention layoffs or what happened to the $125 million rainy day fund. His mood swings are oscillating somewhere between a Bermuda high and a Mississippi low.

For openers, the Louis the Sun King side of Schaefer is furious over having received only 78 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary Sept. 12. He views it as a slap in the face, if not a kick in the shins. Part of the explanation is that Schaefer was badly mishandled by his campaign operatives.

Schaefer is a touchy-feely elected official who builds his reputation by being close to the people (and potholes). Instead, his campaign apparatchiks created a primary campaign that resembled the Infiniti ads in which you never see the car. But then, Schaefer regards having to campaign as an insult.

As if that weren't enough, Schaefer popped the cuff on the blood pressure machine when an in-house memo projecting a $270 million budget deficit was leaked to the press. Try putting a smiley face on that!

Another case of misplaced hostility is the mud-wrestling among Schaefer and the kamikazes around him and Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg. Steinberg, a former Senate president, has a better handle on the legislature than many of its own leaders. He had been Schaefer's lifeline to the General Assembly during troubled times over the last four years.

Now, with a new and untested legislature arriving in January, and Steinberg preparing to run for governor in 1994, the lieutenant governor is unlikely to use up his chits bailing out Schaefer.

So Schaefer is being sucked under by the collapse of just about everything. As a result, he has virtually no program as he enters his second and final term as governor.

The Middle East crisis and the ups and downs (mostly ups) in the price of oil (and gas) have made it more and more difficult to pass a gasoline tax increase next year to resuscitate the state's transportation fund. In fact, the commission to study the gas tax increase, to be headed by former transportation secretary William Hellman, hasn't been appointed yet and probably won't be until after the November election. There are reports, too, that the present transportation chief, Richard Trainor, is preparing to leave the administration.

Maryland, once thought to be insulated from outside economic pressures, is now consider to be in a mild recession. The inability of the Bush administration and Congress to deal with the problems of the economy and the national deficit, compounded by Maryland's own fiscal problems, have probably killed any chance for action on the recommendations of the Linowes Commission to adjust Maryland's tax structure -- that is, to increase taxes.

Those who would attack pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and adjust the inequitable state school finance formula have been told there'll be no additional funds next year.

As if that weren't enough, Maryland's three largest counties could be about to shoot themselves in the foot. Taxpayer groups in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have won the right to give voters the chance to impose caps on their property taxes. Montgomery has a tax question of its own on the November ballot. It's taken Prince George's County 10 years to recover from Operation TRIM, which voters adopted in the 1970s.

If the tax movements prevail, county governments will be traveling to Annapolis with tambourines in hand to make up the loss in revenue. Legislators already are sending the message not to rely on generosity in Annapolis to make up for austerity at home. And having three other impecunious subdivisions begging for money will also hurt Baltimore's chances of getting increased financial aid.

In Baltimore, the business community has been chastened by the financial calamity at MNC. It is in no mood to support big spending programs or tax increases in Annapolis or anywhere else.

Reorganization of higher education was the hallmark of Schaefer's first four years as governor. Now higher education is in a period of no growth, trying to survive budget cuts.

Now for the silliness. Lacking bread, Schaefer has always had the wit to put on a decent circus. Itching for something to do, the governor has said he is considering splitting the Maryland Department of Transportation and decapitating the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The illusion of motion is not necessarily progress, nor does creating two new bureaucracies at great additional cost make sense. The original purpose of reorganization was to consolidate government, not expand it.

And within days, J. Randall Evans, secretary of economic and employment development and the administration's human trumpet, will release still another study, "Workforce 2000." It's described as a spiffed-up version of existing information. But it's something, anyway, the kind of good news King Donald likes to hear.

Finally, to add to the governor's woes, the voters are in a surly and unforgiving mood. Bad news travels fast.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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