From an Aerie Above the Chaos

PETER A. JAY

January 13, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace -- With Maryland's state government and its governor both apparent candidates for rescue by Medevac, and the conventional wisdom generally unpersuasive on why this is so, I thought it would be useful to seek out another perspective. So I went to see Harry Hughes.

Mr. Hughes, Governor Schaefer's predecessor, might easily be perceived as having an ax to grind. He and Mr. Schaefer do not, to put it mildly, admire one another. And Mr. Schaefer, at least when things in Maryland appeared to be doing well under his administration, enjoyed making barbed although not always accurate comparisons with the Hughes era.

But, leaving these frictions aside, Mr. Hughes has had an unusual amount of hands-on experience with the issues that are now giving Mr. Schaefer and his administration such heartburn. And he remains an attentive observer.

Mr. Hughes is now 65, though he looks younger. He practices law from the Baltimore office of a Washington firm, and from his window he has a fine view of the new Orioles stadium at Camden Yards -- a good vantage point from which to consider the current chaos. I found him restrained and not ungenerous in his assessment of the situation facing Mr. Schaefer, though plainly confident that he would have handled it differently -- and better.

The eight years he served as governor weren't all smooth, by any means. Maryland went through a recession in 1982 and 1983 that was in some respects -- unemployment levels, for example -- worse than the current one. And like Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Hughes was a popular governor who had serious second-term political problems, notably the collapse on his watch of the

state-monitored (but not state-insured) savings-and-loan industry.

Transportation funding is now one of Maryland's fiscal problems. Mr. Hughes spent six years as Maryland's first state secretary of transportation, and as governor he began many of the projects for which Mr. Schaefer later proudly cut the ribbons. He understands roads and rails better than most, and sees executive over-reaching as having contributed to the present difficulties.

He also has a background in taxes, which are at the core of the state's current woes. Mr. Hughes, as a state senator, was one of the authors of the last major overhaul of the Maryland tax structure. That program was rejected by the legislature in 1966 but approved, virtually without controversy, in 1967, providing the revenue basis for an expansion of state and local government that lasted for nearly 25 years.

Perhaps because of his time as a bureaucrat, or perhaps because his gubernatorial career was sandwiched between those of Marvin Mandel and Donald Schaefer, Mr. Hughes acquired a public reputation somewhere along the line as being colorless and even the slightest bit dull. It's a bad rap; he has the liveliest sense of humor of any Maryland governor since Theodore McKeldin, and an especially sharp eye for the absurd. And so although he is remarkably tolerant in discussing Mr. Schaefer, at least for the record, it can be assumed that this tolerance requires a certain amount of effort.

One of Mr. Schaefer's most vexing problems has been the General Assembly unwillingness to do exactly what he tells it to. This is the way of most legislatures, but he apparently didn't realize that, and may not fully realize it yet. Mr. Hughes, who spent 16 years in the legislature, had a different approach, and though he was often criticized as governor for being insufficiently forceful, a generally constructive atmosphere prevailed during his administration.

To a degree, this was a function of staff as well as personality. Mr. Hughes also operated with a much smaller executive staff, and was more accessible to legislators than Mr. Schaefer. This helped reduce institutional tensions.

Because Mr. Hughes' budget secretary, Lou Stettler, got along well with the legislature's veteran fiscal adviser, Bill Ratchford, minor budget disagreements didn't automatically develop into warfare. By contrast, Mr. Schaefer and his budget secretary, Charles Benton, have made it plain they view Mr. Ratchford as an adversary. This attitude does not encourage legislative docility.

There's not much doubt that although the downturn in the state and national economies can't be blamed on Mr. Schaefer, his affinity for big expensive projects has made it much harder for the state to cope with simultaneously rising costs and falling revenues. His $500 million light-rail venture, to pick one example mentioned by Mr. Hughes, is one reason Maryland's entire transportation program is hurting so badly.

Really, not much can save Mr. Schaefer's second term now except for more money, and the taxpayers are reluctant to provide that. They're understandably suspicious, remembering how Mr. Schaefer's Linowes Commission, with a patronizing this-is-what's-best-for-you attitude, dropped an $800 million tax proposal on them.

The 1966 tax reform drafted by State Senator Hughes and Bill Ratchford's predecessor Paul Cooper was actually a much more radical departure from the status quo, but when the new Republican governor, Spiro Agnew, got behind it in 1967, it passed easily. Major reasons: legislative-executive cooperation, and public confidence that this was the right approach at the right time.

Being governor of a state, especially a tumultuous and diverse state such as Maryland, isn't ever easy. But appears to Mr.

Hughes, looking on with some detachment from his window high above Camden Yards, that it doesn't have to be as difficult as

Mr. Schaefer is making it just now.

Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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