This time around the joke's on us As the assembly heads toward adjournment

FRANK A. DEFILIPPO

April 02, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

No man's life, liberty or property are safe when the General Assembly is in session.

-- New York probate judge

BY ANY MEASURE, it's been the strangest session of the General Assembly any political rubbernecker can remember.

It's been even stranger than last year's session, which by everyone's reckoning went down as the wackiest on record.

Yet because every legislative session has a life of its own, the last two sessions may not have seemed all that unusual to seasoned assembly watchers. But taken together they offer a horrorific prospect: They may become the standard code of behavior for future sessions.

The 1992 gathering began with Gov. William Donald Schaefer dumping two budgets on the legislature, one a fully funded program packed with bells, whistles and poetry, the other a doomsday budget filled with pain and outright punishment.

Having done that, Schaefer then backed away and in an act of sly connivance turned the budgeting process over to House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent. Schaefer effectively abdicated his authority over the budget the day he submitted it.

Mitchell came to Annapolis opposed to any new taxes. He ended up proposing the largest tax package in Maryland history, a gerry-built $1 billion program of state and local taxes that benefited the rich counties and punished the poor (including Baltimore City) all in one stroke. Mitchell's program amounted to last year's Linowes plan without the proffered benefits.

For the most part, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, was frozen out of the budgeting process, not of his own choosing but because of philosophical differences with the House of Delegates and Schaefer's back-room pact with Mitchell.

So it is fair to ask just what, for crying out loud, is going on in Annapolis. For openers, there's the question of leadership. And beyond that there's a total breakdown of the handful of power centers that used to shape the public agenda in Annapolis as well as in Baltimore.

A lot of slipping and sliding is occurring not only because of generational changes and the disappearance of strong individual leaders, but also because of the dissipation of powerful institutions that used to form the establishment but are now in the control of absentee landlords.

For most of this session, the lawmakers were listless and leaderless, lacking firm direction from the top as well as a clear signal from the people who elected them. As a result, they were uncertain about what to give because they were unsure what their constituents wanted.

People, very simply, no longer trust their government at any level or believe in those who run and populate it.

Schaefer, recalling the drubbing he took over Linowes last year, sat on the sidelines most of this session except when he appeared in public to promote symbol-minded ceremonial gestures such as the ban on assault weapons and a tax increase on cigarettes.

In politics, the only abuse of power is having power and not using it. So for good or ill, Mitchell discerned the power vacuum and stepped into it. The House of Delegates has traditionally been the power center of the General Assembly, in part because the Senate is viewed as a collection of windbags who talk a lot and accomplish little.

But even with that, Mitchell had to deal with a minor rebellion when some within the leadership ranks thumbed their noses at his massive tax plan. Whether they're removed from their positions, as Mitchell has threatened, could be problematical for the House as well as the speaker by weakening the effectiveness of both. There was also seditious talk of ejecting Mitchell from the speakership, and the speaker had to be assigned special protection because of reported death threats.

For the most part, the General Assembly has been unwilling for the past two years to grapple with the larger policy issues that affect the fiscal future of the state.

The approaches of both the House and the Senate this year, as well as last, were to fund immediate needs and to prop up the budget only for next year's growth in programs. Neither the Senate nor the House dealt with the issue of long-term fiscal policy.

Moreover, the House approach repudiated 25 years of Maryland fiscal policy by decentralizing state revenue policy and shifting a major share of fiscal responsibility back to the 23 counties and Baltimore City.

In the end, after three months of shuck-and-jive politics and an ugly demonstration of threats, retribution and retaliation, the General Assembly played a budgetary shell game; the lawmakers hoped voters were asleep and wouldn't notice.

Never watch sausage or laws being made, counseled Otto van Bismarck. It's true that the legislature's function is to kill bad legislation as well as to enact good bills. And in the vocabulary of Annapolis, successful sessions are called productive and unsuccessful sessions are called workmanlike. This has been neither.

Adjournment (which might be delayed this year) usually arrives on an airborne message of flatulent self-congratulation. When you see or hear it, remember that the joke's on us, the people.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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