Legislature smells blood, and Schaefer can't deal with it

Frank A. Defilippo

April 11, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

ON THE DAY in February that USA Today ran a front page headline questioning Gov. William Donald Schaefer's mental stability, a New York representative for a group of Japanese bankers called a member of the governor's staff to find out just what, for crying out loud, is going on in Maryland.

The representative was a middle-man who is encouraging the normally cautious Japanese bankers to invest in the $45 million golf resort and hotel at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland. The Japanese were upset, concerned over what they'd read, and needed calming down. For months, ambassadors from Maryland had been encouraging them to invest in the project, viewed as an economic catalyst to an impecunious area of the state. And now a single headline, one among many lately, threatened to destroy the opportunity.

The example illustrates the kind of image Maryland is exporting to the rest of the nation. The state may not be a laughing stock yet, but it is rapidly ascending the curiosity list. And in an ironic turn of the screw, it's just the sort of bad-news message the pro-business, sunny-side-up Schaefer detests from others.

For the past 90 days, the media, here at home and across the country, have been on a feeding frenzy over the state of the state of Maryland, conveying the notion that suddenly the inmates have taken over the asylum. And suddenly, the stability of the state and those who run it has become an issue in business as well as government circles.

"For a generation we've had to fight the impression that we're a bunch of crooks," an upper echelon member of the business community said. "Now we've got the image that we're a bunch of crazy crooks as well, and it's even worse."

Psychoanalyzing the governor has become a growth industry in Maryland. To begin with, Schaefer himself totally distracted and deflected the work of the session. He led the state on a merry chase, jerking our chains, losing his cool, having fun, whatever. No student of human motivation has yet determined what compels his idiosyncratic activity.

Schaefer's scatological reference to the Eastern Shore, his pugnacious behavior with constituents and his poison pen letters, his abandonment of Annapolis for the desert of Kuwait at the height of the General Assembly session, his falling out with Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, his cussing out of committee chairmen and Hilda Mae Snoops' threat to give us the kind of Governor's Mansion we deserve -- all have overshadowed the business of the state for the past three months.

To be sure, the General Assembly shares the blame. The session was by no means an example of high statecraft. It was ugly and mean-spirited and will be remembered more for its acrimony than its accomplishments.

Schaefer and the General Assembly spent much of the session snarling at each other. Watching Schaefer's blood pressure cuff shoot into the explosive zone is a sporting event in Annapolis. Killing Schaefer's cherished legislation simply to put it to the governor runs a close second. Many of the governor's showcase bills died as a result of legislative predisposition.

The legislators arrived in Annapolis determined not to raise taxes. But they wound up enacting a crazy-quilt of $100 million in new taxes. Now they've been forewarned that the state faces a deficit next year of either $365 million or $471 million, depending on whether they accept the governor's (low) numbers or their own (high) figures. So they'll be back again next year dealing with the same money issue. Go figure.

Whatever else his talents, Schaefer very simply cannot deal with the legislature. Without the lobbying skills of Steinberg, Schaefer was left to his own devices, and the legislature went off on its own winding path.

What's happened in Annapolis is that the system has gotten out of whack.

On the flow charts, the executive and legislative branches are supposed to be equals. Maryland, by design, has one of the strongest executive branch systems in the country, one that is the envy of other governors. By contrast, a legislative branch, by its size and nature, needs to be guided and shepherded toward decisions.

For the past two decades, presiding officers, dating back to the late House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe, have clamored for independence from the executive branch to the point where they would no longer be rubber stamps for the governor.

That independence was finally realized under Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Steinberg when he was Senate president. And the full power of that independence was achieved under the present officers, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, and Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Kent.

Now, instead of being rubber stamps for the governor, legislators are rubber stamps for the Senate president and House speaker. Consider several cases in point: In the House, Mitchell decreed from the first day that there would be no new taxes. He helped to send the Linowes tax package to summer study and single-handedly killed the increase in automobile user fees that had passed the Senate.

The legislature smells blood, and Schaefer doesn't know how to deal with it. To some extent, Schaefer is ill-served by those around him. But in large measure, Schaefer's manic behavior often conveys a death wish.

The legislature is not filling a leadership vacuum as it did during the years of Gov. Harry R. Hughes. Rather, it is aggressively elbowing Schaefer aside and slowly chipping away at the power of the executive. The result is the kind of chaos and confrontation that occurred during the 1991 session.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics.

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