A Legislature That's Running Scared

March 24, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

While much of the public's attention is riveted on the antics o William Donald Schaefer, a more substantive tragedy is taking place one floor below Governor Schaefer's office in the State House: the General Assembly's abdication of responsibility.

In recent memory, no legislature has been quite so ostrich-like. Lawmakers are acting as though any wrong move could deprive them of their seats.

That's the way politicians react in the year leading up to an election, not the year after. This is the time when legislators ought to feel emboldened to take controversial stands instead of looking for the nearest exit.

One state official said the general attitude of legislators has been "negative and nihilistic. They are counting the days till they go home, they can't wait to get the session over with." A number of legislators privately agree with this assessment.

Of the major initiatives confronted by the assembly so far, every one has been killed except for two holdovers, abortion and campaign-finance reform. In both cases, lawmakers had to be pressed hard, after having been shamed by their mishandling of these same bills in 1990.

But when it came to crucial matters such as road-building, money for schools and colleges, a more equitable tax structure, proliferation of assault weapons, help for Baltimore City and controlling growth and development, the assembly's approach has been stunningly non-responsive.

Budget shortfall? Let's not do anything drastic, like raise major taxes or evaluate the cost-effectiveness of existing programs to prune costs. Let's slap together a plan that drains the state's reserve funds and forces government to limp along until prosperity returns.

In the process, the legislature decimated state colleges, negating years of hard-fought battles to improve public education. State roads also took it on the chin -- because legislators wouldn't raise license fees that haven't changed in 50 years. Growth? They saw no problem. Assault weapons? A figment of the governor's imagination. Help for Baltimore? It can wait.

Nowhere is the legislature showing real leadership. It refuses to put forth a vision for the state -- except "no new major taxes" and "no new costly programs."

That's not a vision, it's a burrow-into-the-bunkers mentality.

Most legislators put the blame on Governor Schaefer for presenting them with ill-conceived proposals at the last minute.

They may be correct, but that begs the point: what have they done to come up with an agenda? If the Linowes report on tax reform doesn't suit them, why didn't leaders put their own plan together? Why haven't legislators identified their own areas of highest priority and devised funding plans to support these objectives?

Senate President Mike Miller has spent much of this session keeping harmony in the Senate and avoiding the "foot in mouth" disease that put him permanently in the governor's doghouse. He has been publicly diplomatic, but unwilling to take the lead on any issue except this year's two retreads, abortion and campaign-finance reform.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., apparently spooked by the voter rebellion last fall, has forced his minions to take the "no major taxes" pledge. His flock has meekly obeyed, knowing the speaker will deprive dissenters of their leadership posts.

Legislators are running scared. They are fearful of upsetting constituents. They are fearful of upsetting their leaders. The well-being of the state doesn't seem to matter half as much as re-election and advancement within the assembly's power structure.

Their strategy seems to be working. In the short term, legislators can claim to have resisted higher taxes and yet held down the cost of government. But in the longer run, the assembly is only worsening the state's problems.

Lawmakers didn't reduce government spending as much as they postponed cost increases until 1992. By refusing to increase transportation fees, legislators sounded the death knell for new road construction for 18 months. By refusing to deal with land-use controls, legislators may have set off a land-grab stampede among developers.

Maryland could be in a mess by 1992. More and more indicators point to a sluggish economy for at least the next year. The pressures to restructure taxes, come to grips with growth, do something about highway gridlock and meet pressing social needs will only worsen.

State legislators may find it impossible to stick their heads in the sand again next year. But based on their current performance, don't be surprised if they try.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

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