Schmoke-Clarke feud complicates budget process New round in fight for political power expected today

June 28, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Baltimore's battle of the budget is more than a fight over finances -- it's also the latest skirmish in the continuing political fight between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

The mayor and the council president have publicly clashed three times since the council -- led by Ms. Clarke -- passed its version of the budget June 17. The mayor subsequently vetoed the budget and submitted a new one to the Board of Estimates.

The battle likely will flare up again today when the City Council meets in a rare special session.

The council first will consider Mr. Schmoke's veto of the budget and then take up the new budget he presented to the board. The mayor said he vetoed the budget because it did not provide enough money to hire additional police officers and because it shaved a nickel from the property tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The battle has rekindled speculation that Ms. Clarke harbors mayoral ambitions and is trying to embarrass Mr. Schmoke, who is considering a gubernatorial bid.

Mr. Schmoke has shunned Ms. Clarke since her political club did not endorse him in the 1991 Democratic primary. The mayor would not campaign with Ms. Clarke during the general election because he believed that she had secretly campaigned for former mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns during the primary.

The war between the mayor and Ms. Clarke has featured several political skirmishes and attempts at one-upmanship. But political observers also see the budget fight as an escalation in the war -- one that has left them questioning Mr. Schmoke's leadership, Ms. Clarke's opportunism and the council's conviction to do the right thing.

"It's a terrible game of brinkmanship. It's the mayor vs. Mary Pat," Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd.

Jacqueline F. McLean, who is the comptroller and a former council member, agreed.

"It's a power-play struggle. This back-and-forth bickering has got to stop. That's not what we're here for," she said.

The five-member Board of Estimates holds the city's purse strings.As a member of the board, along with Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke, Ms. McLean watched first hand as two of the city's most powerful politicians argued.

Shortly after the council approved its version of the budget last Monday, Mr. Schmoke told the other board members that he would not sign it into law and that he planned to submit a new budget.

When Ms. Clarke said that the introduction of a new budget would be procedurally "chaotic," Mr. Schmoke retorted, "What I'm saying is adopting the budget before us would be chaotic."

And last Wednesday morning, Mr. Schmoke and Ms. Clarke clashed over the budget during the meeting of city finance officials and board members that precedes the weekly board meeting and during the board meeting.

Ms. Clarke dismissed a proposal in the mayor's new budget to pay for 60 more police officers by transferring money from the city's contribution to the police and firefighters retirement fund to the Police Department's general patrol. "We could have done this any time in the [original] budget," she said.

"I know we could have -- but we didn't," was the mayor's icy parry.

To some observers, Ms. Clarke's careful orchestration of the property tax cut was an opportunity for the ambitious council president not only to advance her own agenda but also to back the mayor into a corner. At the same time, many see Mr. Schmoke's veto of the council's budget as a chance not only to kill legislation he considered flawed but to put down a rebellion fomented by Ms. Clarke.

Both Ms. Clarke and Mr. Schmoke insist that their differences are largely substantive.

"It's not personal, it's strictly business," Ms. Clarke said.

Mr. Schmoke described the situation this way:

"We're trying to minimize the personality issue. What looked like a tug-of-war or minor political turf battle has gotten itself focused on the real issue -- how to provide additional police officers with a balanced budget."

Ms. Clarke said that the city needs to make constant progress in reducing its property tax rate, which is the highest in the state, and argued that with a budget of $2 billion, the city should be able to both increase police and provide tax relief. Mr. Schmoke said the budget that the council approved, with its nickel cut in the property tax rate, did not provide money for more police and was not fiscally responsible.

Political fight 'taints process'

But many council members say personal differences between Ms. Clarke and Mr. Schmoke have made getting a budget approved harder.

"There's no question that some aspects of that political struggle have tainted the entire process. When honest differences over policy exist, they view it as a political challenge," said Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th.

Even some of council members who voted for the budget, then jumped to the Schmoke camp, have criticized him. They say he should have stepped in earlier to make his case that the city cannot provide more police and cut taxes this year.

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