General Assembly: Not Much to Write Home About

BARRY RASCOVAR

April 05, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Set aside the extended legislative wrangling over taxes and budgeting, and there's not much left to write about the 1992 Maryland General Assembly session that is scheduled for adjournment tomorrow night. In fact, the tax-and-spending question has been so dominant that little else actually got accomplished.

In the early weeks, considerable time was lost bickering over legislative redistricting. It sapped the energy of a great many delegates and senators. And it proved totally futile. In the end, Gov. William Donald Schaefer got his way on the new legislative boundary lines.

That set the tone for the rest of the session: no one was capable of forming lasting coalitions strong enough to hold up under the tremendous pressures of competing interests in the State House.

Environmentalists took it on the chin. Efforts to pass the California auto-emissions standards fell apart. So did efforts to block passage of a weak growth-control measure some environmentalists feel will stop meaningful clean-air and clean-water progress over the next decade.

Most gun-control measures flopped, too. So did the strong domestic violence measures. Sweeping AIDS testing and reporting measures were rejected as well.

Efforts to streamline government or to "downsize" departments never got off the ground. In fact, the failure of the General Assembly to craft any restructuring of government was one of the legislature's biggest setbacks: you can't chop $1 billion out of state government without creating tremendous problems unless you first come up with a plan to do it efficiently.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer played such an insignificant role in legislative maneuvering that he at times seemed to be an invisible governor. Behind the scenes, his aides worked effectively on a number of bills, but the governor himself took a hands-off approach.

This tactic worked in one respect: Mr. Schaefer did not become the lightning rod for critics as in past years. But it also cost him much of his influence in legislative hallways.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proved incapable of providing a strong hand in leading his chamber. His disinterest in budgetary matters -- except for his beloved University of Maryland College Park -- severely handicapped Senate efforts to reach an early tax and spending agreement with the House. Mr. Miller cannot control his own budget committee, which puts him at a severe disadvantage in negotiating with the House.

Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell proved once again that he is the kingpin of the legislature. Though he faced a revolt on the tax question among some of his minions, Mr. Mitchell scraped together a majority of delegates on that measure last month. He can deliver the votes; Mr. Miller cannot.

But Mr. Mitchell's Achilles heel is his stubbornness: once he takes a stance, he too often refuses to bend. That helped create the budget deadlock and the deep divide between House and Senate budgeteers. Had Mr. Mitchell displayed more flexibility early on, a fiscal agreement could have been had long ago.

Still, all eyes turned to the speaker when it looked as though no tax package of any sort would be crafted in the House. He finally fashioned a plan and took on the unpopular task of ramming it through, despite the obvious discomfort of many delegates.

Republicans emerged as a far more effective force this year. Though they often turned the budget battle into little more than shrill political war whoops, GOP leaders gained considerable support for their hard-line approach. Still, they lacked the skill to coalesce the anti-tax forces into a majority or to present alternatives that were viewed as realistic options. They haven't shown themselves to be more than a one-note minority -- no new taxes.

If the General Assembly avoids an extended session and adjourns sine die tomorrow at midnight, what will be viewed as its accomplishments? Few and far between. Maryland now has off-track betting on horse races, which may help the racing industry survive or may open up the state to far broader -- and more sinister -- legalized gambling. Motorcyclists once again must wear helmets on Maryland highways. And St. Mary's College was granted a degree of autonomy.

None of these were breathtaking steps forward. Health-care reform, the most burning issue for many Marylanders, was barely touched. Maybe next year, legislators tell us, they'll be ready to come up with a far-reaching program. Maybe. But maybe not.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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