After all, he's only human

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 19, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, looking haggard and uncertain, took to the airwaves Tuesday night to announce that hard times are upon us.

Three years ago, Maryland had a $402 million budget surplus, he said. Now the state is deep in the hole and sinking fast.

So, Schaefer exhorted us all to do our part to reverse the economic decline by buying things this Christmas.

He asked us to continue to have compassion for those who are less fortunate.

He called upon us to rediscover that good, old-fashioned spirit of volunteerism, and he implored us to join hands with our neighbors so that we can get through these trying times together.

Some people described the governor's message as inspirational and reassuring.

I doubt anyone felt much inspired, though.

Schaefer looked too tired on television, too confused and sad.

His exhortations lacked the energy of conviction, and his descriptions of the state's fiscal status merely confirmed our darkest fears.

But that's OK.

Tuesday night's broadcast reminded us that the governor is only human and these days, that is an important thing to keep in mind. For a while there, people were beginning to think of him as the Darth Vader of Maryland.

Schaefer, remember, was the man who cried loudest for a tax increase (using the euphemism of "tax reform") during the last legislative session, at a time when the voting public was so fed up with government spending that comfortable incumbents were being tossed out of office just because they were incumbents.

He is the man who increased the work week of state employees without increasing their pay. Then he topped that blow with round after round of layoffs and furloughs, meanwhile pocketing a hefty pay increase for himself.

Entire departments have been eliminated and public services slashed under Schaefer's stewardship these past few months. Twice now, he has threatened to save money through radical proposals to cut benefits to those on welfare at precisely the time that their needs are greatest.

All over Maryland, local governments have had to cut and dice, slash and hack, to keep pace with Schaefer's budget reductions. And it is not over yet.

And when citizens dared to complain, Schaefer zapped them with peevish notes full of personal attacks.

Suddenly, our cherubic head of state seemed transformed into an ogre.

But we didn't see an ogre Tuesday.

"I guess I was made to understand that all of this wasn't necessarily the governor's fault," sighed a state employee I'll call Joe.

Joe is a white-collar professional who has not been one of Schaefer's biggest fans.

When the governor required state workers to put in a 40-hour week for 35 hour's pay, for instance, Joe and his colleagues called those extra five hours "Schaefer time."

They decided Schaefer time would be a period devoted to quiet contemplation rather than hard work.

But the governor's broadcast softened Joe.

"Now, I would have preferred the governor offered something more concrete to get us out of this mess," said Joe.

"I mean, I had to laugh when he asked us to go out and buy something made in Maryland -- like my going out to buy a $5 Maryland coffee mug is going to turn the state around. It reminded me of the president going out to J.C. Penney's to buy socks.

"But I'll give you this," he continued. "I'll grant you that the governor is a decent man at heart and that he is doing the best he can with a difficult situation. What he did was make me feel sorry I was so hard, so down on him."

Some legislative leaders regretted that the governor did not use his 15-minutes on prime time local television to call for new taxes.

But after his broadcast, Schaefer said he is tired of being the fall guy. "I'm not going to mention taxes," he said. "I took nine months of heavy pounding from everybody" [when he last proposed tax increases].

Thus, his entire presentation seemed designed to do nothing more than blunt the public's anger at him.

Measured against that very modest goal, I suppose his broadcast was a rip-roaring success.

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