Heavy, Heavy

December 09, 1990|By Barry Rascovar

POOR JIM LIGHTHIZER. One day he's got what he calls ''the best job in America.'' The next day, he's stuck with one of the worst jobs in Maryland.

Grappling with the local concerns of Anne Arundel County was a snap for County Executive Lighthizer. For eight years he whipped government into shape, benefited from a huge building boom and received rave notices.

Now he's tackling a different challenge, and he couldn't have picked a worse time to begin. Maryland's new secretary of transportation has a desk filled with folders marked ''urgent.'' None contains good news, but two problems are especially alarming. One is the destruction of the Port of Baltimore. The other is the plunge in transportation revenue that could lead to draconian cuts or higher taxes.

The port dilemma is tragic. Things had finally started to improve. Governor Schaefer, four longshoremen's locals, port business executives and maritime officials had overcome their differences and were making real progress in lowering port costs, speeding up the movement of cargo, luring more cargo to Baltimore and opening a state-of-the-art terminal for high-volume customers. A new local contract, with flexible work rules was approved by four locals overwhelmingly. And then . . . Richie Hughes took his clerks out on strike.

Mr. Hughes had engineered a dock strike in January in an effort to strong-arm the state into granting more clerical jobs at the new Seagirt Marine Terminal. It was strictly featherbedding. Seagirt's gates are highly automated and require minimal clerical work. Mr. Hughes won enough concessions to claim ''victory,'' though his clerks lost 65 jobs in the end. This time, the clerks' boss tried to regain these jobs by holding the entire port hostage. The steamship operators caved in -- once more -- to Mr. Hughes' demands for more clerical jobs and control of computerized operations.

What this means for Mr. Lighthizer is continuing trouble at the port -- and a continuing flow of red ink, too. Mr. Hughes has ensured that Baltimore won't be competitive with Norfolk on labor costs and that the clerks still call the shots on how fast cargo moves through the port. The word has gone out to shippers worldwide: Beware of Baltimore's labor strife and high labor costs.

If the maritime outlook is bleak, the transportation department's fiscal predicament is even more depressing. It is flat broke.

Gas taxes and titling fees have nosedived since the Persian Gulf crisis started. Corporate income taxes, affected by the recession, are 10 percent below estimates. The result is a $500 million gap over six years. Things are so bad that the department is pyramiding its borrowing: To help pay for the Baltimore light-rail mass-transit line, it sought a loan from the Maryland Transportation Authority, which usually is flush with cash from road and bridge tolls. But the authority was tapped out, too. So it borrowed money on the bond market to make the loan. That's a sure-fire way to wind up in the poor house.

What this means is a halt to already approved road and bridge projects. A full construction season may be lost. That will infuriate legislators and highway contractors. It could send the state's economy into an even steeper tailspin.

Explaining to lawmakers that pet projects won't be built any time soon -- though they were approved last spring -- will be the least of Mr. Lighthizer's concerns. He'll have to convince legislators that the only logical way out of this crisis is to raise gas taxes by a nickel or a dime. That won't be popular.

The biggest stumbling block is House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, who has steamrollered the House leadership into a unified ''no new taxes'' stance. Mr. Mitchell reads the election returns. He knows ''big spender'' Don Schaefer lost eight of nine precincts in Mr. Mitchell's Kent County and received only 43 percent of the vote. He's not about to anger the voters once more.

Besides, Mr. Mitchell doesn't have any pork-barrel projects at issue. Most of the crucial road work is in the Baltimore-Washington region, where the number of gridlocked roads could multiply. The House speaker's answer to Mr. Lighthizer's revenue problem is to hack away at these road projects.

Jim Lighthizer will have to be a super-salesman in the coming year. He must romance union leaders and shipping concerns, legislators and road contractors, the governor and angry constituents. He must gain support for a gas tax and create harmony on the docks. All in a time of deepening recession. What a way to begin a new job!

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