Something old, something new, something wacky, something blue

Frank A. DeFilippo

April 15, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE DISTANT rumble you heard was not the dome poppin off the State House but a sigh of relief that the 1993 General Assembly session is mercifully over and the memory of it is already a fading flicker.

After two years of budget-busting deficits and bipartisan snarling, this was supposed to be the year of the session that could. Instead, it almost turned out to be the session that didn't. It was, in a word, a quirky get-together at best.

Oh, there were some record-book successes the scorekeepers will point to -- big deals such as health care reform, the $150 million Convention Center expansion, the clean-car bill and the important lesson of learning to live within our limits at the same time the Assembly reallocated the state's financial resources.

It's true that no two sessions are alike, that the dynamics of each session are totally different. But boy-oh-boy, what a wack-a-do rally it really was when you got right down to it, kind of a mix of the bad old days and the autoclave politics of the politically sanitized '90s.

When, for instance, was the last time a ranking good-old-boy was forced to withdraw his nomination for a judgeship after being publicly accused of making potty-mouth, sexist remarks to advocates of battered-spouse legislation? Well, it happened to former House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Arnick. That salacious soap opera kept the General Assembly (and the public) spellbound as well as fog-bound for a couple of weeks.

And how about the game of chicken between the House and the Senate? The Senate passed a bill that would have abolished Keno, daring the House to do the same. The House, responding in kind, passed legislation that would have stripped senators of their most cherished form of pork -- the $5.6 million in senatorial scholarships they award every year. Both bills died.

There was the case, too, of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. pursuing the public agenda on behalf of a lobbyist who employs his son. It only got murkier when Mr. Mitchell's son, also named Clayton, pressured a state agency to release funds to a client his lobbyist employer represented. All, of course, in the public interest -- and all, to be sure, perfectly innocent and unrelated.

Among the wackiest of the sideshows was the battle of the Blues between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his erstwhile insurance commissioner, John Donaho. Simply put, Mr. Donaho was sacked for doing his job too well. He'd threatened to force Blue Cross and Blue Shield into insolvency unless the legislature expanded his authority to regulate the way the Blues do business.

For the idiosyncratic Mr. Schaefer, that was enough to pop the blood pressure cuff. Mr. Donaho was decapitated 15 minutes before he was to tell a news conference that he refused to resign. (The legislation passed, incidentally, a couple of days after Mr. Donaho got the old heave-ho.)

It should not go unnoticed, however, that the Blues' board of directors is stacked with political pals of Mr. Schaefer and that Blue Cross and Blue Shield is one of two corporate sponsors of the hokey "Governor's Medal of Distinction" that is awarded regularly to Maryland citizens. Decoded, that means the Blues pick up half the tab for the program.

But the strangest behavior of the entire session has to be attributed to Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke because of his love-hate affair for the Convention Center improvement program. Some say Mr. Schmoke's aberrations are part of a larger scheme while others insist his actions devolve from plain ineptness.

Early on, Mr. Schmoke bumbled when he violated political rule No. 3: Never bite the hand that feeds you. On the very same day that he went to Annapolis to testify in favor of the Convention Center proposal, Mr. Schmoke announced that he might run for governor.

The statement, spontaneous as it might have been, spun heads among potential rivals and political enemies who are reluctant to grant expensive favors to opponents during the prelude to an election year.

But in the wrap-up days of the session, the public snit between Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Schmoke reached another in a series of flash points. Mr. Schmoke, in effect, tried to kill the Convention Center rehab program, Mr. Schaefer's pet bricks-and-mortar project for this session.

A rider was attached to the bill that would have given the state a piece of the action -- two-thirds ownership of the facility in proportion to the $100 million the state is applying to the Convention Center as opposed to the city's $50 million.

In quick order, Mr. Schmoke (1) threatened to withhold the city's share of the money unless the rider was eliminated, (2) phoned black members of the Senate and asked them to vote against the bill, (3) offered to sell the Convention Center to the state and (4) agreed to a compromise version of the battered bill.

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