Schaefer on the Sidelines

April 12, 1992

Who's to blame for the disgraceful performance of the General Assembly and its failure to carry out its mandated duties?

Most of the finger-pointing should be directed at Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and their colleagues. Legislative leaders proved incapable of crafting a budget and taxation document that could gain majority support in 90 days.

But Gov. William Donald Schaefer was also at fault for this dangerous deadlock.

Maryland's constitution gives the governor more budget-making

power than any other chief executive in the nation. Yet Mr. Schaefer refused to use his enormous leverage, choosing instead to silently observe the legislature's futile efforts.

By handing the Assembly two vastly different budget options in January, Mr. Schaefer encouraged legislators to seek other alternatives. He sat on the sidelines and watched the debacle develop. What emerged were divergent House and Senate tax/spending plans that ignored the Schaefer proposals and left the governor a non-player.

Only late in the game did Mr. Schaefer offer to mediate the deep House-Senate divide. Even then, he refused to exert the kind of pressure on lawmakers expected of a governor.

Granted, Mr. Schaefer received a terrible -- and unfair -- public beating last year for championing an $800 million tax increase. He was ridiculed, threatened, booed and pilloried for daring to push for an unpopular proposal he felt was essential for Maryland. It sapped his energy, deflated his enthusiasm and bruised his ego. He decided not to re-fight that bitter political battle this year.

We miss the old William Donald Schaefer, who energized state government in his first term. The governor who prodded, pushed and cajoled the legislature into embarking on "do-it-now" undertakings of enormous long-term benefit: a huge commitment to higher education; a big boost in school aid; a $1 billion transportation plan, including the Baltimore-area's light-rail line, and the nationally acclaimed Camden Yards ballpark.

These accomplishments required hard work and years of frustration and anguish -- and resulted in personal abuse heaped upon the governor. But he persevered, until this year, when he opted to sit out the session. In hindsight, that was the wrong decision for Maryland.

In his remaining 20-plus months in office, we hope the old William Donald Schaefer resurfaces. Maryland needs a strong and outspoken governor, one who gives the Assembly the kind of executive leadership envisioned by the authors of our state constitution. Without Mr. Schaefer courageously out in front, the General Assembly stumbled miserably, placing the state on the verge of disaster. Donald Schaefer cannot permit this to continue. He cares too deeply for his state, and his place in history, to let legislative paralysis and legislative cowardice destroy all that he has created.

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