Year of the lame-duck governor

January 13, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE 1994 session of the General Assembly is a giant question mark.

While Gov. William Donald Schaefer is eyeing the history books, and many legislators are preparing for this year's elections, the dynamics of the session will depend on the interplay of three men -- Mr. Schaefer himself, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D-Prince George's) and the new House speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany.)

But a fourth man, the irascible Jack Kent Cooke, may overshadow all three elected officials with his iron-willed resolve to move the Washington Redskins up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to Laurel.

That issue alone is likely to intensify the xenophobic regional clash between the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.

Even Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, who's been ridiculed for goofing off on company time, is reportedly ready to use the General Assembly as the centerpiece of his listless campaign for governor after eight years as Mr. Schaefer's often-unhappy understudy.

And it's important to remember that election years can have a liberating effect on the General Assembly. Reapportionment, retirement and ultimately defeat mean that nearly half the House Delegate's 141 members won't be returning, while the Senate could lose about a third of its 47 members.

In election years, legislators are more apt to posture for the folks back home than to rubber stamp the leadership's wishes.

To begin with, every session has a life of its own, a rhythm and cadence different from any before it. This year's meeting, for example, is the first in this four-year cycle that Mr. Schaefer will actually have some funny money to play with -- about $15 million after all the bills are paid and programs are funded.

This is the payoff money that's usually awarded in supplemental budgets toward the end of the session, kind of a patronage system of rewards and punishments that underwrites favored programs of loyal legis-lators.

With the session barely a day old, the House of Delegates begins work with a newly restructured leadership team. Mr. Taylor's leadership ability and how he will resonate with the mercurial Mr. Miller, however, remain uncertain.

Neither man has a background in fiscal committees, and Mr. Miller's indifference to budgetary matters is well-known. Thus, greater authority over fiscal matters devolves into the hands of two rival regional committee chairman -- Sen. Laurence Levitan of Montgomery County, and Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings of Baltimore City.

In Annapolis pork is power. As friendly rivals, Delegate Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and Senator Levitan as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee would have considerable sway over any capital outlays required for a new stadium in Baltimore or Laurel. Each would want to claim victory for his region. And each has a political agenda beyond his present position.

It's ironic that the issue of acquiring a football team, over which the General Assembly has no legal authority, is causing a protocol standoff in Annapolis. Mr. Miller is serving as Mr. Cooke's point man and cheerleader in Annapolis. And Governor Schaefer is clinging stubbornly to his conviction that a football team belongs in Baltimore for economic reasons, thus aligning himself with Mr. Rawlings.

Election years tend to be quiet years in Annapolis. There's no talk of taxes. And there's no commitment to broad upheaval or convulsive reform.

To the contrary, attempts at lofty debate are a kind of soar-with-the-eagles bombast about things that sound good but cost little -- symbolic gestures rather than substantive issues. Even the city is exercising moderation in its requests for state aid this year for fear of setting off unnecessary regional alarms.

Already the no-brainer, no-cost issues have joined the State House clutter: ban assault weapons, a pick-your-poison more humane form of capital punishment, clamp down (further) on lobbyists, fine-tune last year's health care law, take the $24 million a year the Stadium Authority gets from the Lottery and redirect it to other programs.

There are some goo-goo programs, too, that heighten the presence of incumbents during an election year: A 3 percent cost of living increase for state employees (the first in four years); $20 million for education above the normal APEX increase; money to open the new central booking facility in Baltimore which will process 78,000 arrests a year; allowing the 1 percent surtax on six-figure incomes to lapse; and a shiny-bright, low-cost housing program.

So the debate over the budget, which won't be submitted until Jan. 19, has already been joined. Mr. Schaefer has proposed increasing spending by 5 percent, or $326 million. But that elbow-in-the-ribs, House Minority Leader Ellen Sauerbrey (R-Baltimore County), argues that the increase should be no greater than 4.5 percent. Mr. Schaefer's not running for governor. Ms. Sauerbrey is.

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