Schaefer Keeps Battling

January 14, 1994

There's no backing down for Gov. William Donald Schaefer. This may be his final year in office, but he's in there battling aggressively for his "people programs." His State of the State address yesterday was typically Schaeferesque -- warm, informal, ambitious and, above all, caring.

"We can be so good, we can do so much," he reminded members of the General Assembly. He correctly challenged them to make this session more than an election-year gathering where little is accomplished. His package of proposals serves as an able guidepost for senators and delegates.

Two aspects of the Schaefer talk will generate the most heat: gun control and a higher tax on cigarettes. He's on the mark in both areas.

Maryland's terrifying escalation of handgun violence cries out for action. But as Mr. Schaefer noted, "just throwing money at crime will not work." New prisons will open in Baltimore and near Cumberland; a high-tech DNA data bank is being requested to help solve violent crimes and a series of gun-control measures has his backing. All these steps will help.

One of the governor's concerns is that with Virginia tightening its gun laws, Maryland is fast becoming a mecca for gun purchasers. So Mr. Schaefer wants this state to copy the Virginia law limiting handgun (not rifle) purchases to one per month. He also wants bans on guns with large ammunition clips and on assault pistols. Pressure is building on legislators to act. The chief obstructionist on gun-control bills, Sen. Walter Baker, must not be allowed to thwart the majority's will.

Equally controversial is Mr. Schaefer's request for a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax. Smoking is a recognized health hazard, one that takes a heavy toll on Marylanders. The governor wants to increase the fine for selling cigarettes to minors, restrict access to cigarette vending machines and use the cigarette tax money for a variety of timely initiatives: aid to poor schools, high-achieving schools and schools with large numbers of non-English-speaking children; community programs for the developmentally disabled; a special regional school for disruptive students, and money to help counties pay for the cost of implementing state-order mandates.

These are appealing proposals. By tying them to the cigarette tax, the governor has made it difficult to oppose his overall plan. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and others ought to reconsider their too-hasty opposition to any tax-raiser this session.

Mr. Schaefer is on a final gubernatorial mission: to shepherd his 1994 agenda to passage. Given the positive reception from many legislative quarters yesterday, Donald Schaefer may emerge victorious on the majority of his battles this session.

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