Begging in Annapolis

August 05, 1991

Just when things seemed to be quieting down in the State House, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has reignited his feud with the legislature by demanding that lawmakers come begging to him before he releases funds for specific grants, loans or projects in their districts. Otherwise, the governor threatens to keep such items off the Board of Public Works agenda, in effect impounding the funds.

To say that legislative leaders are boiling mad is putting it mildly. They point out, correctly, that all these projects had previously been approved by the General Assembly and simply need Board of Public Works assent to proceed. The governor, as chairman of the board, now claims the right to decide unilaterally what the board will consider.

Not only does this distort the state's budgeting process, it also turns the board's other members, Comptroller Louis Goldstein and Treasurer Lucille Maurer, into Schaefer puppets unable or unwilling to override his insistence that these capital projects be put in limbo until local legislators write to Mr. Schaefer informing him of their support.

There are serious legal questions about the propriety of this action. Beyond that, Mr. Schaefer's move deepens the chasm separating the executive from the legislature. In some cases, legislators being asked to beg for district projects weren't even in office when the projects were first proposed and designed. In other cases, the governor simply ends up harming "people projects" that should proceed with or without a local legislator's assent. Would the governor really have withheld funds last month from Frederick Community College if local legislators had refused to beg for the project?

This edict is bound to boomerang. Sooner or later, legislators will return the insult. Lawmakers already are talking of folding all capital projects into the budget, making it impossible for the governor to continue what they call his "blackmail" tactic. Instead of winning Mr. Schaefer new allies, this strategy is creating smoldering resentment that could hurt the governor when he seeks tax reform, land-use controls and new transportation projects.

Politics remains the art of compromise. Forcing legislators to grovel won't work. It is a counter-productive tactic that Governor Schaefer should quietly and quickly abandon in favor of a more cooperative approach.

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