Despite Schaefer, State fails Wackiness Test

PETER A. JAY

March 28, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace.-- The 1993 session of the Maryland Genera Assembly will soon fade into oblivion, and the members are already congratulating one another because in their judgment this year's get-together wasn't as great a disaster as last year's. But it wasn't nearly as interesting, either.

The people's timid representatives, spooked by the public fury their 1992 efforts provoked, seem to have concluded this year that their Annapolis playpen has been booby-trapped. They're picking their way through the issues with uncharacteristic caution, and as a result we didn't get to see much creative legislating -- meaning truly goofball bills.

This no doubt made the legislators' activities less costly for us as well as less fun for them. But more importantly, this year's drab, buttoned-up approach dimmed Maryland's old reputation for colorful governance and lost it a chance to re-establish itself in the eyes of the nation as one of the prime nutcake states.

There was a time when you could say "Maryland" anywhere in the country and people would titter. But now the dark night of obscurity has fallen. Network television news, with its sharp nose for oddball politics, found little reason this year to visit Annapolis.

Ho-hum, common-sense government may indeed be what the people were demanding from the Assembly. But if so, such demands are short-sighted, as the legislature implicitly pointed out in the past by ignoring them. In more self-confident days, it was an article of legislative faith that if Marylanders had wanted Nebraskan government, they would have moved to Nebraska.

Celebrity in America is more prized than efficiency, but that's a principle the General Assembly appears to have forgotten. With the coveted title of America's Wackiest State currently lying unclaimed, a few eccentric new initiatives in Annapolis this spring could have snatched it away from competitors such as New York and Louisiana and secured it for Maryland.

That would have meant a return to the national limelight for the first time since the '60s and '70s, when the federal prisons were filled with corrupt Maryland politicians. In those days, Maryland jokes were always good for a laugh on late-night television. The notoriety didn't seem to hurt economic growth, either, perhaps because Maryland's crime and tax rates were both a lot lower then.

We can always shoot for the title again next year, but there's work to be done in the meantime. If other states are going to laugh at us the way they used to, it's up to the General Assembly to raise the state's weirdness level. Governor Schaefer can't do the job alone, though he deserves great credit for trying.

Retention of the laughable and unique state Senate scholarship program, which enables each senator to distribute $120,000 worth of education each year to the college-age children of important constituents, was a step in the right direction. But it takes more than one hoot to make a hootenanny.

All governments, good or bad, are motivated by three prime concerns: to increase revenues, to add staff and to extend official involvement in the lives of the citizenry. No matter how bizarre the proposal, if it will do these things it can find sponsors. So with that truth in mind, here are a couple of proposals for summer study by Maryland legislators.

There's a great need for an Omnibus Safe Streets, Waters and Empty Air Spaces Act, embracing the principle that as dangerous behavior of any kind is undesirable, it should be taxed and regulated more. This bill would cover any activity deemed dangerous by the state.

Under OSSWEASA, bungee jumping wouldn't be banned, as the House of Delegates has just voted to do, it would be smothered with paper. Bungee jumpers would have to complete state-certified training courses before leaping. State safety personnel would be required to be on hand for all jumps. And all bungee cords would have to carry a union label.

Or perhaps, mindful of last week's dreadful boating accident in Florida, legislators would want to insure that such a thing could never happen in Maryland. If so, they could amend OSSWEASA to require that all persons traveling state waters in 18-foot boats propelled by 150-horsepower motors obtain licenses, wear helmets and operate only on routes marked by special state buoys.

Having made Maryland safe with OSSWEASA, legislators could then move on to making it humane by enacting a new Comprehensive Animal Rights and Welfare Act. It's hard to imagine why they haven't done this already.

This measure would require a license for any creature, be it a dog, cat, cow, gerbil, chicken or fish, kept by a resident of Maryland. Any premises where such creatures are kept would be subject to regular state inspection. In addition to stamping out cruelty, the bill would be a moneymaker; the license fees from Frank Perdue alone would pay the administrative costs.

Fame awaits the sponsor of such visionary legislation, as well as the state which enacts it. It could make Maryland a household word again, even if Mr. Schaefer never finds another funny hat.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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