Schaefer as Scapegoat The Target of Citizen Distrust

Barry Rascovar

January 06, 1991|By Barry Rascovar

TEN DAYS FROM the start of his second term,Gov. William Donald Schaefer finds himself under a barrage of criticism. Regardless of what he does, he gets hammered. Not so much by the press as by angry citizens.

They blame him for the state's $423 million deficit, for huge cost-overruns on construction projects, for daring to propose layoffs and for being a ''big-spending'' governor even in bad economic times.

If anything goes wrong in Maryland, folks are quick to blame Governor Schaefer.

Part of this is the governor's penchant for high visibility. Everywhere there is a state project, you see the name ''Schaefer.'' He's constantly in the news. And yet right now, the last thing Marylanders want to hear or see is another politician spouting off. They are fed up with politics and government.

Much of the governor's problem stems from myths that have surfaced about the causes of the state's current budget deficit.

On most of these counts, Mr. Schaefer gets blamed because people don't understand how government functions. They are looking for a simple explanation when the answer is highly complex. The governor has become a scapegoat for the distrust and disgust citizens feel toward government.

Here are some Schaefer myths:

* He squandered a $400 million surplus. That's why we have this deficit.

Not true. Most of that surplus went toward one-time expenses, such as paying off savings and loan depositors from that Hughes-era fiasco or embarking on much-delayed construction projects at state prisons, colleges and hospitals. Some money went for new state buildings so agencies wouldn't have to pay expensive rents in Annapolis.

Mr. Schaefer did not use the surplus to vastly expand government. The legislature made sure of that. Nor did the governor use the money to cut taxes. That strategy is what got New York and Massachusetts into far worse fiscal nightmares. Even if the governor had set aside the entire $400 million surplus, it still wouldn't cover the deficit. There would be a gap of $23 million this year -- and a $200 million-plus shortfall in the next budget.

* He's wasting all our money on a baseball stadium.

You can't cancel the stadium when it is already rounding second base. Even if you could, it wouldn't make a dent in the deficit. The cost of the project is $24 million a year, from instant-lottery receipts. That's enough to pay off the bonds.

Nor is it a waste. Its construction helped guarantee the Orioles would remain in Baltimore. It also is likely to spur economic development that could mean thousands of jobs, new shops, offices and restaurants and millions in extra tax revenue.

* He's going to raise the gas tax because of the cost-overruns on a Baltimore trolley line.

The Central Light Rail Line is indeed far over its original budget. But now it is on schedule and costs may even drop a bit. Much of the line will be finished by late spring, so this expense has little to do with the need for raising the gas tax.

The problem is the state has too many costly road and mass-transit projects planned for the next six years and not nearly enough money because tax receipts dropped in a hurry when the recession hit.

* He wasted all that taxpayer money on fixing up the Governor's Mansion.

Wrong. Most of this money was donated by friends of the governor. Private money, not public funds, refurbished the mansion.

* He is throwing money away on a golf course in Western Maryland.

Yes, the governor wants to use state funds to leverage private dollars on the Rocky Gap golf course and conference center. Its impact on the budget is minimal. Yet the project could mean hundreds of badly needed jobs for the depressed region and stimulate new development.

* He is taxing us to death.

Not true. There has been no general tax increase in the Schaefer years. The gas tax was raised to pay for $1 billion worth of road and mass-transit improvements, but that has been the only substantive tax hike in four years.

* He wants to go on another $1 billion spending binge with the Linowes tax commission report.

Most of this new tax money would be returned to the counties or local schools or earmarked for transit projects. Relatively little would remain for a gubernatorial binge.

* He should have been frugal so we wouldn't be running a big deficit.

The governor's spending habits had nothing to do with the deficit. It cropped up suddenly, soon after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and oil prices soared. Maryland's economy plummeted, catching everyone by surprise. That's the cause of the budget gap, plain and simple.

You can blame William Donald Schaefer all you like, but the verdict here is ''not guilty.''

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