Why the Guv's Brow Has Those Little Wrinkles

January 30, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Already, a once-promising legislative session for Governor Schaefer shows signs of turning sour. All the upbeat cheerleading and determination of his state-of-the-state address haven't stemmed the tides already tugging at the legislative shorelines.

Take, for instance, the centerpiece of Mr. Schaefer's budget, the 25-cent-a-pack cigarette tax. He wants to use the $70 million it would generate for a variety of education and social-service objectives. He has strong support from local government officials, who would benefit handsomely. He has the support of many big interest groups that also would end up winners.

But the fiscal watchdogs in the legislature already are threatening to short-circuit this Schaefer effort.

The problem is that the governor's budget is roughly $160 million over the General Assembly's unofficial spending affordability cap. And given the state's recent recessionary troubles, a growing number of budget-watching lawmakers don't want to get the state in trouble by overspending before a strong economy is fully evident.

The cigarette tax isn't popular for a number of other reasons. Southern Maryland lawmakers oppose any tax that would hurt their local tobacco industry. And no legislator wants to hit the campaign trail having upped a tax significantly -- even if it is merely a ''sin tax'' imposed just on those who continue to smoke. It's too easy for challengers to demagogue on the subject, bashing incumbent lawmakers for ''raising taxes.''

At the least, the Schaefer cigarette tax could be severely lowered, with only a few of the new programs left intact. At worst, the entire package could be lopped off the budget, along with another $90 million in departmental spending.

This won't make for a happy governor.

Nor is the governor likely to be pleased when February 14 rolls around. The chances of lining up a commitment from a National (( Football League club to move to Baltimore are dwindling. Still, miracles do happen. Perhaps Rams owner Georgia Frontiere will suddenly find the gumption to take on the other NFL owners and Baltimore's biggest foe, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and announce a shift to Charm City. That's the best hope at the moment.

If that fails, though, chaos could break out as lawmakers jockey to cut loose the money set aside to build a new football stadium. It could be a parochial free-for-all.

This has a number of legislators concerned. They are quietly discussing some fallback positions.

These include a plan to give Baltimore a new indoor arena at Camden Yards as part of a deal with sports owner Abe Pollin. The idea is to get Mr. Pollin to move his basketball Bullets from the USAir Arena in Largo back to Baltimore. His ice hockey team, the Capitals, would stay in Largo and the state would underwrite partial reconstruction of that arena. This way, both the Washington and the Baltimore areas would benefit.

The rest of the money would be used for such ventures around the state as the expanded Ocean City Convention Center, a conference center in Montgomery County and completion of the long-awaited Rocky Gap golf course in Western Maryland.

It is an every-region-gets-a-piece strategy that could gain substantial backing both from legislators wanting to avoid a bloody battle over splitting up the spoils if the Baltimore football stadium goes under and from lawmakers whose areas would benefit under this complex package.

Still, Mr. Schaefer could well wind up without a football team for Baltimore and also could be forced to concede defeat to Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, whose plans for a Laurel stadium look like a done deal. This won't make the governor happy, either.

In fact, there's little to cheer about at the moment. The Assembly gives no indication of heeding Mr. Schaefer's pleas in his state-of-the-state address. Lawmakers are being guided by traditional election-year strategies.

Yet it is early in the 90-day legislative session. In the past, Mr. Schaefer has experienced a rough ride for about 75 days before rebounding. And usually by sine-die night, he has salvaged most of his top priorities and rightly claims victory.

But events are rushing forward quite rapidly this year. That February 14 deadline calls for furious back-room bargaining for the next few weeks -- and beyond. And if Mr. Schaefer wants to salvage his cigarette-tax package, he's going to have to move earlier than normal to stop momentum from building to kill the package in the Senate.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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