A valedictory state of the state address

January 20, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

LISTENING to Gov. William Donald Schaefer deliver a state of the state speech is like visiting a good psychiatrist: Nothing very much happens, but it sure makes you feel better.

Mr. Schaefer's seventh and last oration lacked the goofy theatricality of some of its predecessors, but like the bride at the altar it contained portions of something old, something new and mainly something borrowed. All it lacked was something blue.

Even its Schaeferian thematic title -- "One Maryland: Safer, Healthier, Stronger" -- had the uplift and energy of a superhuman gene pool. But the address contained no show-stopper catch-phrases and only three applause lines.

In tone and tempo, Mr. Schaefer appeared chatty but subdued, perhaps more out of concern with relieving his audience of the notion he's a lame duck, which he is. The one laugh-line in the address referred to his lame-duck audience: "So, when you call me a lame duck, look at your own wing."

Mr. Schaefer's a born-again believer in the old chestnut that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. He's redirecting government toward that end. And he tried not so much to jump-start the General Assembly, as he has in the past, but rather to coax its members into believing that Big Daddy is right.

In a sense, many of the themes and programs Mr. Schaefer outlined in his address were test-driven in a major speech he delivered to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce in Ocean City last October.

Yet when all of the symbol-minded preachiness is peeled away, there's more tinkering with the mechanisms of government than brash departures from what already exists. Mr. Schaefer's building-block proposals support the notion that government can never do enough, especially where it previously did nothing.

Take the proposed 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax, for example. It reveals Mr. Schaefer the trickster at work. As he did with the Linowes tax proposal three years ago, the governor has linked funding of programs with a local appeal for passage of the weed tax.

The last time the cigarette tax was raised, revenues from that source fell far short of what the legislature projected because of a sharp drop in the sale of tax stamps.

If history repeats itself, the next governor could be stuck with a package of underfunded programs. The cigarette tax could turn out to be nothing more than a munificent gesture in a pauper's will.

The programs, by the way, include $25 million to local governments to help fund state-mandated programs, $24 million for schools, $13 million for the developmentally disabled and $7 million for a variety of juvenile programs, including Mr. Schaefer's shtick-of-the-month, a school for disruptive students.

Mr. Schaefer devoted a large measure of his speech to recalling the accomplishments of the past seven years before charging into the quality-of-life matters that are the raw beef and red-eye of his valedictory speech. In a sense, he's attempting in his final year to pull together many of the loose ends of his seven years in Annapolis.

In the broad view, Mr. Schaefer is tapping into the great swell of public fear and frustration over the social welfare culture -- public safety, health care, education and welfare reform. As everyone knows, Mr. Schaefer is addicted to radio talk shows and the vox populi of the permanently disgruntled.

America has become a Guns-'R'-Us society. Mr. Schaefer's five-point gun control program is a repeat performance of his three previous attempts to ban assault weapons. But it goes further this time around by proposing tightening laws on gun and ammunition purchases.

The social counterforce to this proposal, however, is that people are arming themselves at an alarming rate because they fear they'll soon be unable to buy guns.

And what else from the King of Kitsch? Mr. Schaefer's erected a flagpole outside the State House. And every day a Marylander is shot, the flag will be lowered to half staff.

Mr. Schaefer also addressed cancer, needle exchange/AIDS, welfare reform, Medicaid reform, home care for the elderly, the death penalty, alcohol abuse and drunk driving, the DNA data bank, year-around schools, Medevac helicopters for the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland, child support, a family court, good kids, bad kids, tourism, economic development, lead paint, higher education, a convention center for Montgomery County and improvements to the Ocean City Convention Center. As if that weren't enough, he said he will allow the income surtax on six-figure salaries to self-destruct at the end of the year.

Whew! That, folks, is the price of a safer, healthier, stronger Maryland.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a column on Maryland politics.

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