A potentially rancorous showdown between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders was averted temporarily today when the state Board of Public Works met to review a list of building projects and grants for local areas.
Schaefer, who had insisted that lawmakers sign letters supporting specific projects before he would let the board allocate money for them, said he would not oppose adding some projects to the board's agenda even though they do not have those signatures.
But, Schaefer warned, today's action is not a retreat. He said he still may use his authority to defer board approval on some projects and, in some cases, may seek legislative support in the form of signed letters.
In a private meeting in Schaefer's office this morning, state Treasurer Lucille Maurer told Schaefer and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, the other two members of the board, that she intended to offer a resolution adding about 20 previously stalled capital projects and grants to the agenda.
Maurer's gambit was strongly encouraged by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, who have been fighting to get a number of overdue local projects on the board agenda.
With Maurer's resolution and Goldstein's support, Miller and Mitchell had hoped to override Schaefer's opposition.
"I hope the governor can count to two," Mitchell said yesterday.
As anticipated, Maurer's resolution had Goldstein's support and gave the two a majority vote. A momentarily quiet Schaefer did not vote on the resolution.
With a political logic based in part on a state attorney general's opinion saying the governor can ask for but not require such letters of support for projects, Schaefer said he viewed Maurer's resolution as an indication of the legislative backing he has been seeking since May when he initiated his new policy.
Schaefer said he would accept a handful of projects onto the board agenda for action today. But in a jab directed at Miller and Mitchell, he accused legislative leaders of unfairly putting pressure on Maurer to force a vote on bringing stalled projects before the board.
"Do it to me and I'm OK," Schaefer said. "Do it to someone who I have high regard for and I don't like it at all."
Schaefer's policy, which had the effect of delaying a wide variety of building projects in many parts of the state, infuriated General Assembly leaders.
The capital projects and grants were approved by the legislature when it passed the state budget, they argued, and no further approval from lawmakers is needed. The board is required to approve all expenditures of more than $5,000.
Schaefer had said he wanted legislators' signatures so that "we can make sure, before the money is actually released, that the local officials still believe" in the projects.
But legislative leaders saw the governor's action differently.
"It's revenge. It's spitefulness," Miller said.
Miller said Schaefer wanted to withhold funds from certain projects to punish areas that did not support the governor's re-election and lawmakers who voted against his bills that came before the General Assembly.
Schaefer denied the allegations today, saying his policy was "no diabolical scheme, no twisting around."
Legislative leaders had become so incensed over Schaefer's signature requirement that they had begun to talk about taking Schaefer to court.
Schaefer fired off his own challenge to Miller and Mitchell today.
"Go ahead," he said. "You get your lawyers and I'll get mine and we'll see if I don't have executive powers. I don't like threats. . . . "
To Maurer, who once served as a legislator and is elected to her office by the General Assembly, the spat between the governor and lawmakers had grown from a routine political "inside baseball" contest into a major battle.
"It's become an issue of the dignity of the General Assembly and not one of signatures," she said yesterday. "It's almost a constitutional crisis over form letters."