Maryland's House GOP 'sent 'em a message' even in defeat

FRANK DEFILIPPO

April 16, 1992|By Frank DeFilippo

THE REPUBLICANS in the Maryland House of Delegates may have lost the tax war but they won the public relations battle.

For in the end, a noisy band of GOP delegates embarrassed the majority Democrats and angered the Schaefer administration over the dual scourges of spending and taxes.

In a year that seems ripe for the Republican fiscal message, the group of 25 GOP delegates led by House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey (R-Balto Co.) seized the political advantage -- rightly or wrongly -- by tapping into the public's strident anti-tax fervor. They had only a vague outline and few specifics of how to deal with Maryland's revenue shortfall and rising operating costs. But the GOP delegates put on a public relations roadshow that left Gov. William Donald Schaefer and hapless Democrats wriggling and writhing over raising half a billion dollars in new taxes.

To be sure, House Republicans were organized and ready for prime time. They were everywhere preaching their gospel of cut-and-run economics -- on television, on radio talk shows, on newspaper opinion pages, even in their own radio commercials. It never occurred to them that while governing by talk show might seem egalitarian, it's actually a very risky business.

They had their own press secretary and even their own budget analyst, former Secretary of Budget and Fiscal Planning Thomas Schmidt. And they had their very own sideline chaplain, talk-show nag John O'Neill of the Maryland Taxpayers' League.

At one point, Sauerbrey even proposed the audacious notion of a public referendum on higher taxes.

Mort Sahl, the comedian, observed that anyone who maintains a consistent political philosophy will eventually be tried for treason. But that's exactly what House Republicans did. Many were elected on the cusp of an anti-tax movement in 1990. And they're looking toward 1994, calculating that the mood of the electorate will be more intense and unforgiving then than it was in the last election.

Perhaps as much as any other factor, House Republicans were able to present a singular message of no-new-taxes against a backdrop of Democrats in mean-spirited disarray who really had no organized response to the Republican PR assault.

Schaefer dropped two budgets on the General Assembly then backed away until the final few days. Schaefer's passive role angered House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., who had counted on the persuasive powers of the governor's office to help gather votes.

Mitchell had to deal with an embarrassing rebellion among his House leadership team when he threatened to strip them of their epaulets if they failed to support his tax package. Many of the House's 116 Democrats sided with Republicans in opposing both Mitchell's original tax program and the version that got adopted.

And by forcing a House vote on the entire tax package instead of on each separate component, Mitchell lost any chance of getting a scattering of Republican votes; in fact, his tactics further coalesced the GOP opposition.

The House and Senate disagreed sharply not only on the issue of which taxes to increase but on how much revenue to raise. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller were busy snarling at each other.

County executives were antagonized by the paralysis in Annapolis and several were preparing doomsday budgets of their own in the event new tax money was not forthcoming.

Miller annoyed his own county executive, Parris Glendenning, by sponsoring legislation that prevents Prince George's County candidates from accepting contributions from developers. Glendenning complained that his own budget would be out of whack if Miller and his colleagues in Annapolis failed to act.

Miller's blood pressure popped the cuff when Prince George's County's Del. James Rosapepe, chairman of the House Appropriations' Tax Subcommittee, assured Glendenning that the House-sponsored 10 percent increase in the piggyback tax would survive the House-Senate standoff.

Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter fumed when Montgomery County's Sen. Ida Ruben voted against a tax package because she believed it shortchanged her county.

And Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden, a Republican who was elected as an anti-tax candidate but who has been forced to back higher taxes this year, couldn't even get a meeting with his own county delegation. Hayden earlier had his bodyguards eject tax protesters from his office who claimed the county executive had betrayed them.

For his part, Schaefer declined to meet directly with Sauerbrey to discuss her program of cuts and freezes. But his budget mechanics did review her proposal and concluded it wouldn't work.

So for the moment, at least, Sauerbrey's a hero to those who support her views and Republicans are flying high over their new-found success in Annapolis. They're clucking all the way to the polls.

Frank DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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