Surprising Show of Sanity in Annapolis


June 09, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

What in the world is happening in Maryland's State House? Did they change the brand of bottled water or clean the ventilation ducts?

Sanity, of all things, has suddenly descended on the state capital. Cooperation has replaced confrontation. Deep wounds are beginning to heal -- slowly. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has emerged from a dreadful seven-month funk. The bitter winter-spring hostilities have ended.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell last week decided to stop playing autocrat; Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller suspended his war of words with the governor, and Mr. Schaefer left on Friday for the Far East with a slight smile on his face.

Perhaps it's due to the refreshing blast of cool Canadian air that whipped across Maryland after a brutally hot month of Bermuda highs. Or perhaps the end of the General Assembly session in April gave everyone time to unwind and realize their public feuds were undermining state government.

The catalyst was Maryland's most recent budget crisis. Since the governor and the legislature knowingly adopted budgets earlier this year that were clearly unbalanced (and thus illegal), it is not surprising that a new shortfall would quickly emerge. Annapolis remains $110 million in debt for the fiscal year that ends June 30, and already is $150 million in hock for the next fiscal year -- which won't even start for another three weeks.

Rather than foist a plan on legislators, the governor this time described the bleak situation to them over lunch and suggested that aides from the two branches devise a joint strategy. It worked. The two sides quickly agreed on a plan that at least balances the books for this fiscal year, though it does nothing to alleviate next year's money crunch or the state's serious structural imbalance -- it is living way beyond its means.

Still, this accord changed the atmosphere in the State House. Soon afterward, logjams on three other controversies were broken.

First, the continuing plunge in state revenues persuaded legislators to get serious about tax reform. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Miller issued a detailed letter instructing four committees to undertake an examination of state revenue and expenditure needs, come up with recommendations by Oct. 1 and finish their work in time for the 1992 General Assembly session.

While the letter never mentioned the Linowes commission, this legislative journey seems designed to follow paths laid out by the governor's panel. Once legislators look at the state's enormous future commitments in such fields as education, health and social welfare, resistance to tax changes may weaken. With federal aid shrinking, Maryland's aging and inefficient tax structure just can't produce enough cash any more to underwrite all the state's priorities. Altering the tax statutes could be the major item on the Assembly's agenda in January.

Second, the transportation dispute has been resolved -- or at least half of the quarrel has ended. Speaker Mitchell puzzled even his friends by adamantly refusing in the last legislative session to sanction higher motor vehicle fees to support $400 million worth of projects eligible for federal aid. As transportation revenues plummeted, Mr. Mitchell remained intransigent. Delegates in the leadership circle, who could have forced a turnaround, remained silent. They didn't have the courage to take on the speaker.

As the weather cooled, though, so did Mr. Mitchell's ardor for remaining the lone holdout. He finally agreed to higher motor vehicle fees. And he opened the door to a higher gasoline tax if officials give him a detailed list of new projects. Once local governments are canvassed for their transportation wish lists, that list probably will stress mass-transit over road-building

Third, Assembly leaders asked a legislative group to formulate a land-use growth strategy as a follow-up to the governor's "2020 commission" report. While the two-year length of the study irritated some within the Schaefer administration, it is probably the only way to ensure broad consensus on something so sensitive and politically charged as growth and land development.

Still, there will be intense pressure on the group to draft legislation for the 1992 session protecting the most vulnerable areas of each county. That is likely to serve as a rallying cry for environmentalists.

Far more difficult will be finding ways to re-focus growth sensibly in each county. Conservatives are demanding a minimal state role. Overcoming special interests that favor haphazard growth will take time, which explains the two-year schedule set by legislative leaders.

All this good news could signal an upbeat period for Mr. Schaefer. The governor is scheduled to receive red-carpet treatment in Japan and Singapore, which always lifts his spirits.

His aides, meanwhile, have the go-ahead to work behind the scenes with legislators on issues that were stalled last session. Even Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg has patched over some of his differences with Mr. Schaefer.

Most important of all, the governor has told friends that he knows he was wrong in eviscerating his enemies and declaring war on the legislature. It was time for a new approach. The results, so far, are encouraging.

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

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