Schaefer's ambitious swan song

January 14, 1994

Those who expected Gov. William Donald Schaefer to deliver a tepid and meek final State of the State address yesterday were off-base. Mr. Schaefer is a battler. He set out yet another ambitious agenda for lawmakers, challenging them to mock the notion that all of them are lame ducks.

In many ways it was a typical Schaefer pep talk. "We help people. That's our job," he said at the outset. His long shopping list targeted a variety of people-helping subjects -- public safety, public health, welfare reform, public school aid. Legislators would make a mistake by ignoring these proposals. Many are sorely needed.

By far the most controversial item centered on a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax. Each year, smoking kills 7,600 Marylanders prematurely. It is a public health hazard. A higher levy on cigarettes would encourage some people to stop smoking.

The money raised -- $70 million -- would be marked to help counties pay for mandated state programs; increased aid for impoverished or superlative schools, schools with a big ESOL (English as a Second Language) population and an expansion of pre-kindergarten classes; community services for the developmentally disabled and a special school for disruptive kids. Lawmakers will be hard-pressed to reject such enticing programs, though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had previously turned his back on any new revenue-raisers.

The other big item outlined by the governor was his public safety package. These include money to open new prisons in Baltimore City and Allegany County, money for 500 additional local jail beds, a DNA data bank to solve violent crimes and a raft of gun-control proposals, including another attempt to ban assault pistols, a ban on guns that hold more than 20 rounds in their magazine and a one-handgun-per-month limit similar to Virginia's new law. These are sensible suggestions. Senate President Miller, in particular, owes it to the citizens of Maryland to prevent Sen. Walter Baker from bottling up these bills in his committee.

A pilot welfare-reform program in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and in Baltimore City could prove promising, since two-thirds of those on welfare live in those jurisdictions. The plan is to require recipients to look for work and to begin community service work after 12 or 18 months if no private-sector jobs are available.

"People are the common thread," the governor said. That should be the legislature's common thread, too -- not thoughts of how to get reelected. As Mr. Schaefer repeatedly pointed out, this could be (and should be) a substantive and productive General Assembly session -- if lawmakers put the needs of people first and foremost.

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