Fiscal noose: We hang together, or separately

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 03, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The governor is said to be saddened. A kind of death rattle is heard across the land, a shudder of community fear: If 1,766 state jobs have been cut, if $450 million must be found, then how safe is anyone?

The governor is said to be depressed. He has always prided himself on being a ''people person'' and not a bottom-line guy. But this week's 1,766 job eliminations include exactly no one from William Donald Schaefer's swollen personal staff of 119 people.

The governor is said to be sobered. In Crownsville, he saw state troopers wearing black mourning bands over their badges. Their mood is funereal. A state trooper named Jerry Skrzypiec, 19 years on the force, confronts Schaefer in a hallway. Skrzypiec faces the loss of his job. He says he could lose his house. The governor shrugs his shoulders and says he warned people this )) could happen, and then he walks away.

Something doesn't ring true here.

The governor isn't stupid. He sees communities under siege from crime. He knows how the game is played. You either pay to stop crime up front, or you pay for it in great multiples after it's already occurred -- with more community damage, with more cops, more courts, more prisons. Instead, he cuts prison staffs, too.

Something doesn't ring true here.

The governor isn't insensitive. He listens to the radio talk shows, he reads the newspapers, he reads his mail and seethes. He knows people still talk about his breathtaking $35,000 pay raise with the economy in a spin. He knows the resentment of state workers given longer hours for no pay raise at all. He knows of the scatological poetry printed and circulated among these workers that shreds the governor's ego.

This is a man who defines his life by the parameters of his job and now sees the entire state turning against him. He's a man who obsesses over the pain of aging, and now he's cut money for the elderly. He's a man who has seen narcotics ruining his beloved neighborhoods, and now he's cutting drug programs. He's a man who bleeds for the poor, and now he's cut assistance to the poorest among us.

When he met with his staff the morning after he announced cuts, he told them, ''Funny how everybody's crying about police reductions and nobody's said anything about welfare cuts.''

He's a bleeder, and yet his public posture this week is one that is more resignation than regret. The governor told these people what was coming: hard times. He even named a group last month to look into it, the Commission on Economy and Efficiency in Government, headed by Schaefer's pal, J. Henry Butta. Their mission: Find kind and gentle ways to trim the government fat.

So why trim now? Why not wait for word from Butta's report and do this thing right?

It doesn't ring true.

No one's denying the gravity of the moment. The state's broke, and the governor couldn't get anyone to go for a tax hike. Are you listening, Clayton Mitchell? The governor has now put the ball back in the court of the leader of the House of Delegates. Mitchell stalls for time. There's no need for a special session on taxes this month, he says. But maybe he hasn't checked his mail lately.

What this begins to look like is not huge Schaeferian government cuts so much as a massive bluff, a scary sort of political brinkmanship. If the public outcry is big enough, then it forces everybody in Annapolis to take another look at a tax hike. The giant egos in Annapolis angle for power while people across the state hold their breath.

Does anyone notice an echo? The state is now facing what the city of Baltimore has faced for years: humiliating poverty. For years, the city has begged for help from the state and the legislators from suburbia have turned up their noses.

You can't do this, the legislators were told. Washington has already turned its back on the cities. The state can't do the same. But the legislators didn't care, didn't see the city as something relating to their own lives.

Also, they didn't notice the same thing happening to the state that was happening to the city: Washington was ignoring them.

In the last 10 years, Washington has cut $325 million a year in Medicaid grants to the state.

In the same 10 years, Washington has cut $374 million a year in broad-based grants, meaning such things as general revenue sharing, anti-recession fiscal aid, local public works programs, training and employment to the poor.

Something should be dawning on the geniuses in Annapolis by now: We're all in this together. The White House, already having written off the cities, is now kissing off the states.

There's a march, called Save Our Cities, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 12, in Washington. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is supposed to be among the leaders. He and the governor of Maryland do not get along, although someone should tell them they're now sitting in the same small lifeboat.

And it makes no sense at all if Schaefer isn't in that march next weekend, and if 1,766 state employees aren't there, too.

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