Exit all the euphoria

Dan Rodricks

October 02, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

This is why he no longer wears the funny hats. All the fun is gone for William Donald Schaefer. Long gone.

When he arrived in Annapolis in 1987, there was fun money. He surfed into the state capital on the crest of a huge mandate, and he had fun like never before. It was still Morning In America, the national economy was still experiencing its phony euphoria, the state of Maryland had a budget surplus and its legislature was eager to accommodate the powerful new governor.

So the bond issue for that multimillion-dollar stadium in Camden Yards went through, and so did money for a light-rail system to get people to it. And the Do-It-Now Man was a happy camper. He expanded the governor's staff. He gave big raises to Cabinet ministers. He put new lights on the Key Bridge. He told Hilda Mae: "Go ahead, order new drapes." And it was all fun.

Until the bills started piling up.

When the first troubling news about a budget deficit hit Annapolis, we saw new wrinkles on the governor's ample forehead. And with that pesky General Assembly shooting down his big ideas left and right, Don Donaldo became a very frustrated guy. His forehead turned red.

With the national economy slowing under the weight of a massive deficit and the savings-and-loan bailout, with the state budget deficit swelling, with his less-than-landslide victory in the 1990 election irritating him, William Donald Schaefer must have longed for the days when he could get a Pratt Street pothole filled in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Stressed and set upon, it was no wonder the governor was given to sudden, eccentric behavior. His color went from red to blue. Even the new fountain didn't cheer him up.

He realized something: He could no longer Do It Now.

In fact, he couldn't Do It At All.

And this hadn't been what Willie Don expected when he let his business pals talk him into running for governor.

So, four years later, you can imagine how he felt when he had to lop off 24,000 poor people from the public dole. With them went 83 state troopers and nearly 1,700 other state employees. Even the Med-Evac service, sacred cow since the Mandel days, will feel the ax. Starting Nov. 1, you can't have a serious car accident between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. and still expect a Med-Evac helicopter to fly you to a hospital.

What's the message?

It's the message that, until now, William Donald Schaefer has been unable to get across: We can't expect services we're not willing to pay for.

This day had been coming for a long time. Everyone knew it. If they didn't, they should be prosecuted for malfeasance in office -- and that goes for Schaefer and his fiscal experts.

Were Schaefer's budget cuts courageous?

I wouldn't go that far. He didn't exactly order his Cabinet to unplug their car phones, and few of his pals receive General Public Assistance.

Schaefer really had nothing to lose. He can't run for governor again. He's almost 70 and guaranteed pensions. His popularity no longer soars off the charts; it barely clears the rooftops. He can smell the coffee. He can make these drastic cuts and blame it on the legislature when, in fact, he klutzed last year's attempts to get an important new tax plan for the state.

As long as his bodyguards are funded, Schaefer has nothing to worry about.

But the brown-suits like Clay Mitchell and slickie-boys like Mike Miller should. They and their rural-suburban pals in the General Assembly let this drag out, thinking Schaefer would appear to middle-class voters as the bad guy looking to spend more money, probably on welfare ciphers in Baltimore.

That worked -- until Schaefer pulled the State Police and the community colleges up to the chopping block. Now, for a change, it's not just the anonymous poor of Baltimore getting whacked. It's everybody.

Everybody everywhere, in fact. We've got a national economy smothered by a deficit, a president who bleats "stay the course," corporate inertia that keeps the United States from competing in world markets, a federal government that pulled billions out of local and state governments, local and state governments full of politicians with no courage to talk taxes, and taxpayers who want the same services at less cost. Go figure, and you see why the days of the funny hats are gone.

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