The Ship of State, Rudderless and Adrift

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 21, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

The decline in the ability of government to govern continues unabated. For examples, look no further than Annapolis, where neither legislators nor governor displays much in the way of leadership.

Maryland is, to a large extent, rudderless. The ostensible captain of the ship ponders his fate in isolation in his cabin. Command decisions dealing with the long term are lacking. The operative instruction seems to be: when in doubt, postpone till the next administration.

Meanwhile, shipboard officers try to keep order among the crew. Let's not rock the boat. Let's not change the status quo. And surely, let's not give this ship some firm guidance.

So Maryland government continues to drift. The recession revealed major weaknesses in the system and especially in the individuals near the helm. Governing in good times is easy; operating a ship of state in rough seas, though, takes enormous skill and courage.

What's most surprising is that the public is crying out for leaders willing to take chances. Citizens want government to try new approaches, to experiment, to attempt the unconventional. Yet these cries are being ignored in Annapolis.

For instance, an 18-month study on cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in government costs met a brutal reception in the General Assembly. Virtually all of the Butta commission's proposals have been consigned to the junk heap. When a commission member tried to explain the specifics to one House subcommittee, he was told not to bother.

One of the few attempts to reconfigure government, from House Speaker Clay Mitchell, was savaged by the speaker's fellow delegates. They have no interest in making decisions that offend interest groups.

Health-care reform, high on everyone's list, could be going down for the count, thanks to one senator, Thomas P. O'Reilly, who wants to have it his way -- or no way.

How about another area of public concern: the high cost of auto insurance? Though the governor established an insurance fraud bureau to deal with an epidemic that sends auto rates soaring, a House subcommittee -- led by a trial lawyer -- took the money out of the budget. When a State Police investigator testified on behalf of this anti-fraud effort, another trial lawyer/legislator, who makes his living suing insurance companies, ripped into him.

As for another way to fight the auto-insurance problem, no-fault insurance, the governor is so scared of offending two powerful senators who are trial lawyers -- Mr. O'Reilly and Senate President Mike Miller -- he refuses to release the report of his own commission that recommends a no-fault plan for Maryland.

Economic development fares no better in Annapolis. While BWI Airport slowly sinks -- its major airline has sliced one-third of its flights and international flights are shifting elsewhere -- the governor and his transportation aides resist efforts to seek private-sector help.

When the state is presented with a proposal to bring a new airline to BWI -- with its corporate headquarters here -- officials ignore the appealing economic approach of the new airline's owner, Frank Lorenzo, and instead curry favor with organized labor by castigating Mr. Lorenzo for his anti-union history.

The fact that the proposal might turn around BWI -- and bring 1,000 jobs to Maryland -- has been lost in the anti-Lorenzo babble. Of course, all that sound and fury is great for legislators anxious to lock in union support for next year's elections. The state's economic development can wait.

In fact, just about anything of import can wait while legislators fortify their re-election chances and impress themselves with their own importance. That's why senators wouldn't give up the $120,000 in annual patronage giveaways known as senatorial scholarships. And it is why legislators adore to micromanage anything they can get their hands on. They love the power. And they love being important.

It explains why Del. Howard P. Rawlings suddenly has decided to play city school superintendent. He thinks he has the legislative muscle to dictate from his committee chairmanship exactly how the city schools are operated. As Mr. Rawlings so modestly put it: "Very few people have as clear a view about what management changes are needed in the school system as I do."

Still, dictating the number of security officers at city schools is a .. long way from providing state government with the guidance it ** needs. So is doling out college scholarships and kowtowing to unions. We lack politicians with vision who can chart a creative course and keep the ship of state on that line, individuals who can forget about their re-election and their egos long enough to do what needs to be done.

Legislators and the governor are working hard these days, but the ship of state's engines still aren't running on all cylinders. At the moment, government in Annapolis isn't functioning all that well. Nothing is likely to change until new leaders arrive on the scene in 1995.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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