Some see indecisiveness, but governor calls it flexibility

February 24, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Like Hamlet, Shakespeare's melancholy Dane Gov. William Donald Schaefer is showing signs of indecision in this, his winter of discontent.

At the midway point of the Maryland legislature's 90-day term, the governor who has cultivated such a decisive image over the years seemsto have flip-flopped lately over an extraordinary number of budget decisions.

"We're getting a lot of mixed signals," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, echoing a common lament in the General Assembly this year. "I think there's been a lot of flexibility in the administration."

Governor Schaefer has rarely backed down from decisions in the past, even when that has meant confrontation with legislative leaders. He still talks about the need for a state-supported high school for outstanding math and science students, for instance, even though the General Assembly denied it to him three years ago.

But since last fall, Mr. Schaefer has repeatedly announced cuts in programs only to rescind them in the wake of protests. An executive orderto require state employees to work a standard 40-hour workweek stood on the books for several weeks until it was postponed on the day it was to begin.

Before Christmas, the governor talked of laying off 1,800 state employees but was subsequently talked out it. Two weeks after the administration proposed reducing from 90 days to two weeks or less the amount of notice to be given when state workers are laid off, he had the emergency regulations withdrawn.

"I haven't flip-flopped on anything," Mr. Schaefer insisted Friday when asked about the reversals. "Changing when you see that something else is better is not a flip-flop."

"Any person who can't admit they can do something better, that's the dumbest thing of all," he said. "To stand in concrete is stupid."

At the core of most of the backpedaling is the state's growing budget deficit. The slumping economy has resulted in less tax revenue for the state and a greater need for mandatory programs that benefit the poor and unemployed.

Though Mr. Schaefer has trimmed numerous programs to eliminate a $423 million deficit, the continued economic slump will compel even more cost-cutting. New revenue projections are showing a gap of at least $75 million more between what the state expected to earn in taxes this fiscal year and what it is paying out.

The slump is expected to continue into the next fiscal year. As a result, the legislature has targeted the governor's $11.6 billion fiscal 1992 budget for $211 million in cuts.

For a governor who spent his first four years in office touting new programs and such big-ticket projects a Baltimore's light rail and statewide education aid, there seems to be little affection for a drawn-out battle of budget attrition.

Of greater concern to most legislators are the political costs of the governor's backpedaling. Some Democrats complain privately that it has made the state's chief executive look weak-willed and easily swayed when political pressure is exerted.

Other lawmakers believe the seesawing is the result of decisions made too often in haste; they think the governor's major problem his continued failure to consult with interested parties earlier.

"Clearly, having to make these reversals can be damaging to any politician," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

Unexpected announcements have been a hallmark of the Schaefer years in Annapolis. In his State of the State address last month, the governor announced state takeover of the troubled Baltimore City Jail and the city's zoo, surprising city officials and even his own aides.

"There is no long-range thinking in this administration," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "There's no looking at what would be the downside of the situation and taking steps to alleviate the problems."

Nevertheless, most legislators seem to welcome the governor's vTC reversals, particularly his decisions to restore funding for programs that benefit the sick and disadvantaged.

"No politician benefits from flip-flops, but a politician is hurt even worse when he makes a wrong decision and refuses to correct it," Delegate Poole said.

Still, there are others in Annapolis who wonder if the governor's reversals aren't part of a greater strategy to convince legislators of the need for the Linowes commission's widely unwelcomed, comprehensive tax-restructuring plan.

"Maybe it's a technique for putting forth the most painful, unlikely kind of cuts on the premise that people will say, 'Well, if we have to cut kidney dialysis, things must be bad,' " said House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County.

Administration officials scoff at that notion. The unique circumstances of a sluggish economy and falling tax revenues that require almost daily changes in budget strategy are more to blame, they insist.

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