Maryland Held Hostage

BARRY RASCOVAR

April 12, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Are these guests finally going to go home? It's been clear to everyone except the 188 members of the General Assembly that they overstayed their welcome early Tuesday morning. It's darned expensive putting them up.

These unwanted guests have held Maryland hostage. The state's ability to function effectively was called into question. Even as counties creep perilously close to their own budget deadlines, they've been in a fog about what aid would be coming from Annapolis.

The link between state legislator and John or Jane Q. Citizen is nearly invisible. What senators and delegates do in the State House usually has little direct impact on our daily lives. There is a serious disconnection between lawmakers and the citizenry.

Yet if the end result had been a no-frills budget lopping off another $700 million from the state spending plan (bringing total cuts in the past two years to nearly $2 billion), everyone would have felt it.

Parents in Baltimore County, for instance, faced the prospect of their kids' elementary classes ballooning in size as 4,000 new children enter school with the county having the money to hire additional teachers.

Counties would have cut fire and police budgets, parks and recreation, environmental clean-ups, most construction programs -- and been forced to raise property taxes just to keep local government afloat.

Belatedly, legislators began to realize just how radically they were about to alter the level of government services. While some argue that is a good thing, that Marylanders have been spoiled by the quality of government assistance, the imminent threat of going cold turkey shocked and angered citizens.

They pounded legislators mercilessly last week for not living up to their constitutional obligations to finish their work on time. Yet the chutzpah of these officials remained mind-boggling:

Having precipitated this crisis and thrown Maryland into turmoil, state lawmakers had the effrontery to take a night off last week for a lavish "Legislative Appreciation Night" party at Oriole Park at Camden Yards filled with freebies.

What comes through most clearly is that General Assembly leaders don't want to lead, and legislative followers don't want to follow. "This place," lamented House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole of Hagerstown, "is an absolute bog."

"We're being laughed at," said Sen. Bernie Fowler of Calvert County.

Quipped Del. Brian Frosh of Bethesda, "I hear there's been a run on head-sized paper bags with eye holes cut in them."

And Sen. Leo Green of Bowie warned colleagues, "The citizens are not happy with us. . . . They're yelling at you. They want us to get the job done."

But no one really seemed up to the task.

As Montgomery County Council member Gail Ewing put it, "Annapolis is being run by the nay-sayers and wafflers" who "do not have the guts, the leadership and the courage to do what has to be done."

It's not as though legislators were taken by surprise by this fiscal crisis. The tough times hit Maryland with the first hammer blow in September 1990.

Since then, top Assembly leaders have spent much of their time denying the crisis was as bad as it appeared. They handled the situation like children: "Maybe if we wait and close our eyes and wish real hard, this will all go away."

It didn't. Instead, matters got worse.

No one wanted to solve the problem for fear of jeopardizing his or her re-election chances. The operative phrase became, "Don't offend the voters." Legislators were afraid to cut programs or raise taxes for fear of angering folks back home.

Majority Leader Poole noted that legislators reflected the same indecision as their constituents. "Our citizens don't know what they want, and we don't know what we want. The biggest problem we've got to overcome is the notion that you can get something for nothing."

There is a painful political and social price to pay for making deep cuts in public programs that help people. But there is also a painful political price to pay for voting in favor of higher taxes to keep these programs alive. Either course of action is fiscally and politically tenable. The only indefensible response is to take no action at all.

That's why constituents were so mad. For nearly two years, legislators have waltzed around the basic issues. They have obfuscated the problem. They have tried to avoid the tough choices. But voters elected them to get the job done, even if it wasn't popular or pleasant.

The response from constituents last week was clear: They despise legislators who sit on their duffs, basking in the ego-glory of perks and power. They want their officials to act, to get this state moving again.

Finally, it looks like these intruders might leave our State House. They've made a shambles of our beautiful home. Cleaning up this mess could take forever.

7/8

H:

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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