Schaefer told us so, but we didn't listen


October 02, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Has the governor gotten your attention? I thought so.

For some months, including the period during which everyone was calling him a nut cake, people have not been paying serious attention to William Donald Schaefer.

Our state legislators have not. They scorned him. They would read about his high negative ratings and they would laugh.

This guy was supposed to be so tough, they said to one another. He thought he would come down to Annapolis and show us a thing or two. Well, we showed him!

And they did. They showed him they could defeat his $800 million tax-restructuring plan last year. They laughed at it, pronouncing it "dead on arrival" in Annapolis.

But who is laughing now?

Whoever it is, it shouldn't be you. Even if you are wealthy, even if you don't intend to become a prisoner, or go to a state park or have children you can't feed, you should still not be laughing today.

Because the massive cutbacks announced by the governor yesterday are only the first ripples in the pond. The deficit, $450 million this year, is expected to grow to $1 billion next year. You may have read about the state police being laid off and school breakfast programs being cut and rehabilitation for inmates being eliminated.

And maybe you don't care about any of that. But would you care if your garbage is picked up only once a month? Would you mind it hanging around your house that long?

I hope not. I also hope your appendix does not burst at an inconvenient time or place. Because a medevac helicopter may not be there for you. No matter how rich you are.

The overall picture painted by the governor came in two hues: dark and darker.

True, chief executives sometimes threaten unacceptable cutbacks in order to goad people into action. But if the goad does not work, the cutbacks will be real. Even if this is just today's political ploy, it will become tomorrow's reality.

Can we find other things to cut instead of the things the governor has named? Or could we cut "waste"? Sure we could. But a billion dollar's worth? Good luck.

The governor said he has done all this with a heavy heart and "there is no joy in Mudville" over it. But he resisted saying the one thing he could have said: "I told you so."

And he did tell us so. But we didn't want to pay attention.

It was much easier to laugh and joke about the mansion or outhouses on the Eastern Shore. So we ignored the more gloomy stuff.

We ignored what he told us on March 23, 1991, when he was sitting at a back table in the Towson Inn on York Road. It was then he predicted exactly what is happening now.

"There is no money," he said that day (and The Sun printed it the next). "But they don't believe me. The legislature is digging me into a tremendous deficit for next year. . . . And so next year they'll say: 'You're going to have to put in taxes.' Oh, it's very clever of them. But I'm not going to do it. Let them put in the taxes.

"The legislature is hurting the poor. They are hurting the elderly. They are hurting the mentally retarded.

"I will predict what is going to happen next. We do not have enough money. . . . So people in some areas are going to scream. . . . Well, I'm going to tell them: 'Write your legislators.' "

The key word in all this is "legislators." But most people today are not blaming the legislators. They are blaming Schaefer. And he knows that.

Does he care? Not much. One month from today he will turn 70. He has a little over three years left in his term and is forbidden by the constitution to succeed himself as governor. He most likely will never run for office again.

So you want to blame him instead of the legislators who refused to face up to tough decisions? Go ahead, blame him. A lot of good it will do you.

Because Schaefer no longer cares how much you don't like him. "The Sunpapers say my popularity is down to 35 percent?" he said in Towson that day. "That's not accurate, but I don't care. Because it's going down to 2 percent. So get ready."

We're ready. And so is he.

Schaefer's nemesis, the man who made that "dead on arrival" crack about his tax plan, is Sen. Laurence A. Levitan, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. He enjoys whacking the governor, but Levitan was strangely non-combative and non-cocky after Schaefer's announcement this week.

And instead of uttering cute phrases, Levitan was actually uttering the dreaded "t-word."

"The legislature could act and, say, increase sales tax a penny," Levitan said, meaning raising the tax from 5 cents on the dollar to 6 cents. "We would still have to make major cuts, but not so deep."

There are problems with a sales tax increase (the poor are hit harder than the rich), but it is better than nothing. And nothing is what the legislature has done so far.

But wait. There is a catch. Before the legislature can act, Levitan says, it needs something. Something very rare in Annapolis: gumption.

"Will there be any kind of groundswell to increase taxes?" Levitan said. "If so, the legislature will do something. If not [an immediate tax increase] will go by the boards."

This may confuse you. If the money is needed and the legislature knows it is needed, why is a "groundswell" of public opinion HTC necessary? Why don't the legislators simply act?

Because they are afraid, that is why. They would not act last year, an election year, and they are afraid to act this year, a crisis year.

They know that you and I don't like taxes. They know that we want nifty programs and to help the poor and the downtrodden and to have medevac copters hovering above our heads 24 hours a day, but we don't want to raise taxes to pay for it all.

The legislators are afraid to act because they are afraid of us. They know what we really want from government is a horn of plenty.

But today there is no plenty. So Schaefer is giving us the horn.

And in a place we do not like.

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