Good Riddance to a Bad Session

BARRY RASCOVAR

April 07, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Attention Maryland legislators: The End is Near! One more day and this nightmarish General Assembly session will be history.

It can't come soon enough.

This has been, without doubt, the worst legislative gathering in memory. Assembly leaders didn't want to deal with any issue that might prove controversial -- especially if it was linked to the word "taxes."

What will be billed as the General Assembly's major achievements amount to passage of bills that had been killed by lawmakers a year ago. The issues were familiar to veteran legislators.

Any matters that were unfamiliar to them met with distain. This included the "Big Three" proposals pushed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer:

* An $800 million package of tax changes that had been recommended by a blue-ribbon panel after a three-year study. ++ Emphatically quashed by the House and Senate.

* A 5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase linked to new road and mass-transit projects. Repeatedly rejected by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate budget leader Laurence Levitan.

* A major land-use proposal to force counties to stop suburban sprawl and designate areas of high-density growth and areas where development would be barred. Slapped down by the Assembly.

Much of the legislature's dithering was to be expected: 45 of its members had been newly elected in November. But the legislative leadership remained intact. There was no excuse for its hesitancy.

The central concern of lawmakers was the state's worsening financial situation. Twice the governor reduced his budget expectations, eviscerating cherished programs and threatening major layoffs.

Yet all legislators wanted was to avoid looking like villains. They forced the governor to abandon his layoff plan, then refused to give him new tax money to make ends meet.

This game of political one-upsmanship quickly degenerated into a nasty shouting match. Governor Schaefer made matters worse by trying to bully lawmakers into line. His threats and petty acts of retribution led to (what else?) harsh legislative responses to embarrass the governor and defeat Schaefer-backed proposals.

Attempts by legislators to sit down and work things out with the governor failed. Mr. Schaefer even put his lone effective lobbyist, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, in the deep freeze, further ensuring the defeat of his major initiatives. The legislature was left to navigate on its own.

Neither Speaker Mitchell nor Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller showed any willingness to take the helm. They were more concerned with keeping their members happy. The act of legislating became, for them, the act of surviving the 90-day session.

No wonder the governor grew so incensed. Legislators reveled in the ego gratification that comes with the job, but they skirted any controversies that might make constituents mad.

Consequently, lawmakers let Maryland's budget crisis persist, patching over the deficit long enough to get out of town before the roof caves in. The fact that this will exacerbate the state's fiscal dilemma later this year didn't worry them. After the session ends, it becomes the governor's headache, not theirs.

This approach works well in the short term. But over the long haul, evading government's basic problems isn't possible.

Legislators will have to make unpopular decisions to restructure taxes or cut out social programs and jobs if the state's revenue-expenditure imbalance persists.

They will have to act to end population sprawl if they want to preserve what's left of once-rural Maryland.

They will have to find money to pay for roads, bridges and mass-transit lines unless they want to halt all new transportation projects for the foreseeable future.

Without decisive -- and possibly unpopular -- action, Maryland's quality of life will decline. Eventually, the public will start looking for someone to blame.

Sadly, lawmakers might have to confront these issues without Governor Schaefer to guide them. The constitution gives the governor the power to provide strong leadership for the Assembly. He sets the legislative agenda and lawmakers work with him to reach a consensus.

But this year, the executive-legislative partnership has been severed. Mr. Schaefer remains furious with legislators for what he feels are attempts to humiliate him. His criticism is unrelenting.

So legislators must lead the state themselves. They must fashion their own vision for Maryland. That's not the traditional role for a legislative body. It could prove uncomfortable and difficult, as they amply demonstrated this session. Yet they may have little choice if the state's fiscal picture continues to darken and the governor remains moody and uncooperative.

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

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