Speaker Mitchell, a State House Conservative, Turns to Talk of Reform

January 10, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis. -- House Speaker Clay Mitchell will open the 1993 legislative session with promises of a more democratic style -- and with a power base so secure he won't have to deliver on those promises unless he really wants to.

Having recently smashed a coup mounted by his highest ranking lieutenant, Mr. Mitchell now says openness and better "communication" will characterize his leadership.

But he promises changes of substance as well.

He proposes to begin an overhaul of state government. He wants to merge, consolidate and "rightsize" agencies to fit the income, if not the needs, of the 1990s.

Already one of the three most powerful state leaders, Mr. Mitchell could emerge now as the innovator in a triumvirate which has done more squabbling than legislating.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a devotee of big government who yearns to patch the fraying blanket of social service, reacted coolly to the Speaker's reform initiative. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who once called Mr. Mitchell a slow-walking, slow-talking Eastern Shoreman, seems content to make current structure run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

So, the sometimes impatient and peremptory speaker becomes the idea man, the man with the agenda -- the man who wants a sluggish institution to move more than incrementally. That change would be almost as dramatic as the change Mr. Mitchell claims for himself.

Should he follow through on his plan and should his ideas be found worthy, the 56-year-old legislator would be using his power in the pursuit of objectives which will be extremely difficult to achieve in the hurly burly of any 90-day legislative term.

He can claim to have the citizens on his side. Increasingly skeptical about the ability or willingness of politicians to make government work, the voters have gotten the attention of legislators. Few among the 188 senators and delegates assembling here this week are not for change.

And this session may offer the last best hope in this century for real change.

Recent news from the comptroller's office suggests the state's economy is on the cusp of revival. Governor Schaefer said last week a 1 percent increase in revenue could allow him to restore some of the $2.1 billion cut from state programs over the last two years.

This is not bad news, of course. But it could mean that the leverage for change provided by hard times is fading.

"I am fearful that we'll become hopeful," says House Majority Leader Bruce Poole of Hagerstown, who endorses Mr. Mitchell's plans.

Mr. Poole's own hopes for change rest with the speaker, who does not share the governor's view that the first uptick in revenue receipts is cause for optimism.

"The governor is building the budget. But I wouldn't put anything back now," Mr. Mitchell said last week. "I wouldn't add anything. . . . Right now I just can't see it."

What he can see, Mr. Mitchell told reporters, is merger and consolidation and cost-cutting.

The state faces a gap of $120 million per year between anticipated revenue and expenditure growth. Some of that difference will be exceedingly difficult to cover because it results from mandated health programs, for example. Some of that expense is ordered by the federal government and can only be changed at the federal level.

Mr. Mitchell proposes to consolidate the Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture. He would also merge the Departments of Personnel, General Services and Budget/Fiscal Planning, and he would combine the state's Natural Resources Police with the State Police and put both under the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

These changes, he said, could save 20 percent of the budgets currently allocated to these departments. -- about $53 million per year.

"It's what the people want," he says.

Senate President Miller offers a glimpse of the reaction such proposals are certain to receive: "It's wise to cut costs but not at the expense of Mother Nature," he says.

But Majority Leader Poole says the assembly must get beyond what he calls "cut and paste" budgeting. The cutting has been deep -- more than $2 billion in two years -- but it may not have been enough.

Delegate Leslie Hutchinson, D-Baltimore County, goes further:

"We will build on the speaker's proposals," she says.

Mr. Mitchell applauds. He says a committee must be formed to find new cost-cutting proposals and continue "the momentum we get this year."

But how can this speaker, only weeks away from a serious challenge of his authority, speak with confidence?

By accounts of his colleagues, he emerges from the battle with his position completely secure. He has given some support to the idea that the effort to unseat him produced a recognition that he had to be more communicative -- allowing an occasional floor debate, for example.

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