Rain on Schaefer's Parade

January 20, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

INAUGURATION DAY IS supposed to be a festive occasion. A time for celebrating a politician's successful election to office. A time for looking optimistically to the future. So why was there all that gloom in Annapolis last week?

The depressing mood Wednesday matched the downcast weather. Even William Donald Schaefer managed few smiles. What should have been a high point from him turned into another burdensome chore.

The governor's staffers sent out 16,000 invitations to the inauguration. They got few replies. Even fewer showed up. Aside from members of the governor's cabinet (who had to be there), state legislators (who had to be there), invited dignitaries and some loyal friends and admirers, the ceremony attracted a tiny audience.

True, the weather was lousy. Everyone's mind seemed to be on war and the Persian Gulf. But there were other reasons for this fTC pervasive gloom.

No one in the legislature is looking forward to four more years of Mr. Schaefer's tension-filled reign.

He hates dealing with legislators unless he knows he can win the argument. He hates it when legislators pull surprises on him, though he has no qualms about pulling surprises on them. He insists on waging grudge warfare against legislators. He expects blanket approval of his proposals, then boils with fury when he doesn't get it.

Mr. Schaefer believes in unimpeded gubernatorial rule. He still doesn't understand why a countervailing force known as a legislature is necessary. So he resists playing the age-old legislative game of consensus. He remains a believer in the philosophy espoused by former football coach Frank Kush: "It's either my way or the highway."

Further dampening legislative and gubernatorial spirits is the state's abysmal financial situation.

Twice already, the governor has chopped away at his own cherished programs to close a $423 million budget shortfall. Now more must be sacrificed to balance next year's budget. Even worse, the legislature's fiscal analyst thinks that revenue projections made just last month have already missed the mark.

If that is so, legislators will be forced to cut the governor's already-reduced budget by as much as $100 million just to keep the books balanced. And if House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. insists on blocking a transfer of corporate income tax funds to the operating budget, the General Assembly's chopping block could set an all-time record of nearly $200 million.

That will be a wrenching task for legislators. It will infuriate the governor. No one relishes this day of fiscal reckoning.

In the weeks leading to Inauguration Day, Mr. Schaefer was "up and down like a yo-yo," in the words of one observer. He would bemoan his plight one moment, then turn joyful the next. He would praise legislators publicly, then curse them in private conversations. He fretted about receiving "only" 59 percent of the vote last November, then publicly thanked voters for their trust. He was not a happy man.

No wonder; the next four years could be trying times. His big plans for expanded government services and major capital improvements could be strangled by a sagging economy and an apparent message from voters of "no new taxes -- cut government spending!"

Compounding his troubles, Mr. Schaefer must deal with people he doesn't fully trust.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, though he is the governor's lone effective link to the legislature, seems to spend as much time in the Schaefer doghouse as some journalists we know.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. sends the governor into fits of rage when he dares to comment negatively on a Schaefer suggestion.

Speaker Mitchell has put himself in Mr. Schaefer's Hades by seeking to block action this year on tax reforms and tax increases.

And reporters! Well, these people do nothing but write "negative, negative" stories about the governor. They make him look like an ogre. Yet he has got to deal with them. It is one of his least favorite duties.

Still, Mr. Schaefer managed to deliver an inaugural speech filled with optimism and positive thoughts. He received a smattering of polite applause. He somehow stopped the rain long enough to let the sun shine through as he delivered his address.

How different from his first inaugural, when enthusiasm for the ex-mayor of Baltimore was as high as the expectations -- despite the frigid temperatures. He was a hero then; now he is a known commodity. Our expectations in these recessionary times are modest. That's not Mr. Schaefer's style. He is having enormous trouble adjusting to the minimalism that voters seem to want from their leaders in the 1990s.

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