Annie and Dr. Gloom

Frank A. DeFilippo

January 24, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IN BOTH his inaugural address and state of the state speech, Governor William Donald Schaefer sounded like a cross between Little Orphan Annie and Doctor Gloom.

On the one hand he talked about the sun coming out tomorrow. And on the other, he talked about the malaise of Maryland's people.

But Schaefer left no doubt that he's still the man very much in charge, that he's still very much, well, William Donald Schaefer. He invoked the familiar calls to action: "Do It Now" and "Maryland Momentum." And lest anyone question whether he's still the Big Kahuna, Schaefer described himself as not a lame duck governor, but "a very healthy duck, full of energy and ready to soar."

Both speeches were calculated attempts to shuck off the funk he's been in since his disappointing numbers (59 percent) in the November election. Schaefer's convinced that the voters believe the governorship has gone to his head, and he defended himself as the same old simple soul who used to water geraniums on his West Baltimore porch and who still battles ladies in lines when he shops at sales. Schaefer even promised to resume his funny hat routines and the carnival of stunts of the lovable mayor of old.

He complained that the stories he reads about himself make him sound more like Donald Trump than old-shoe Don Schaefer. To expand on the theme of the common man, Schaefer mentioned McDonald's twice in his inaugural address, and Denny's once in the state of the state speech, which says more about the state of his stomach than the state of Maryland.

But for the most part, Schaefer was a ditzy burble of optimism. Beset by a nosediving economy at home and an uncertain war abroad -- the state of the state speech was delayed by a George Bush press conference on the war -- Schaefer was reflecting more of the reckless '80s than the new reality of the '90s. He talked about stepping out and doing bold things, about state government setting the pace by continuing to build roads, highways and light rail systems.

And for the first time, we got a sneak preview of what Schaefer has in mind for us. That glimpse of the future came when Schaefer warmly embraced the recommendations of the Linowes Commission in both speeches.

Without the $800 million in new taxes, Schaefer said, Maryland's poor subdivisions will be in deep dip. Under the Linowes plan, the counties and Baltimore city would share $462 million in new money. But this year, the proposal might be just a munificent gesture in a pauper's will.

Schaefer is a man who likes to build monuments. Only right now he's broke. He has a $423 million deficit on his hands this year and almost as much next year.

The only way he can build the Tinker Toys he likes so much is

with more money. And the only way he can come up with the money is to go after the $800 million in new tax dollars the #F Linowes program would bring in.

To the city, Schaefer extended an offer to have the state take over the jail and the zoo, short of Mayor Schmoke's hope that the state would assume financial responsibility for the city's courts and state's attorney's office as well. Both the jail and the zoo takeovers, however, are part shell game. The exchange would retract $38 million in police aid and zoo subsidies that the state now gives the city. The dual offer caught Schmoke by surprise.

Governing is easy when money is plentiful but difficult when cash is in short supply. Tough choices must be made between what is doable and what is desirable. Interest groups tend to poach on each other's money preserves, not caring which group comes up short.

To accommodate his new optimism, Schaefer has confected an imaginative legislative program that looks good on paper but costs no money or new taxes. It's kind of like rearranging the furniture.

He wants to ban assault rifles. No cost there. He wants to tighten the seat belt law. Another freebie. He wants to pursue the U.S. Olympic games. Modest travel expenses, perhaps, but the economic benefits to the winning state are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He wants to tinker with a couple of state agencies and departments. More furniture shuffling. He wants to "privatize" the Hickey School. A simple bookkeeping adjustment. He's proposing the 2020 program for the environment, sort of a master plan that would restrict development around the Chesapeake Bay to areas that have adequate roads, sewers, schools and other amenities. This could cost some big bucks down the line. And he's talking about accountability in schools VTC and health prevention, more intellectual exercises than budget items.

So far so good. But imagine, if you can, that by some higher fluke of statesmanship, the General Assembly were to adopt the Linowes s recommendations. And suppose Schaefer suddenly got his hot little hands on an extra $400 million.

You can bet that somewhere in the executive suite there's a Plan B. And you can bet there would be a rush of supplemental budgets and new big-money programs the likes of which haven't been seen for nearly 20 years when surpluses were huge and budgeting was effortless.

That would make governing easy again.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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