Midway in Annapolis

February 24, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THERE'S a durable fable in the State House that whatever goes amok by mid-session will always be adjusted in favor of the governor by the final day. Governors believe it. Legislators believe it. Reporters believe it.

Well, tomorrow is Day 45, the one with the Magic Marker circle around it, the midpoint of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's final encounter with the General Assembly and the final 90-day meeting of this legislature's four-year cycle.

So anybody who subscribes to the myth of executive invincibility and corresponding legislative malleability ought to take a wide-eyed look at the mid-session score card. Mr. Schaefer's having a tough time in his valedictory session.

To begin with, Mr. Schaefer has sidetracked his own legislative program by his stubborn insistence that there's an NFL franchise in Baltimore's future. His arbitrary deadline of Feb. 14 has come and gone. Now Mr. Schaefer wants to extend the date to year's end.

On Jan. 12, Mr. Schaefer stood before the General Assembly to advance the quixotic cause of "One Maryland" in his State of the State address. Since then, he's managed to divide the state into two xenophobic chunks by resisting Jack Kent Cooke's proposal to move the Washington Redskins to Laurel and demanding more time to lure a team to Baltimore.

That tetchy matter, along with the grabby issue of what to do with the money set aside for a football stadium in Baltimore, has managed to overshadow the status of the governor's legislative program.

Mr. Schaefer's vaunted welfare reform proposal has met with opposition from welfare advocates and recipients. The program, simply put, would require welfare recipients to work at something -- anything -- after 18 months on the dole. Opponents argue that poor women would have to give up health care benefits in exchange for minimum wage jobs with no medical insurance.

Mr. Schaefer's HIV identification program also appears bogged down. The proposal would add HIV to the list of communicable diseases that physicians are required to report to state health officials. Opponents contend such reporting would be an invasion of privacy.

Despite the public outcry over crime and the official posturing on the issue, the governor's annual attempt to ban assault weapons -- wrapped with four other gun-control measures this year -- is no closer to passage than it was last year. Even if the ban passes, there's the threat that pro-gun groups will test its constitutionality in court.

Year-round schools have caught Mr. Schaefer's fancy but no one else's. To prod local governments, Mr. Schaefer has offered $400,000 in bribe money to four school systems to study the concept. The idea has nothing to do with learning. It's merely a way to avoid building more schools to accommodate the burgeoning school population.

This year's tickler issue is another 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax, which would goose Maryland's levy to the second highest in the nation. To ease the way for the increase, Mr. Schaefer has proposed dividing the $70 million it would raise among local governments, education, the developmentally disabled and the elderly.

But key legislators are saying no dice. As an alternative, they may fund the governor's $70 million in new programs by cutting other areas of the budget. Moreover, the governor, by his own admission, has already exceeded the General Assembly's spending affordability cap.

Another revenue measure is Mr. Schaefer's proposal to dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to tourism promotion. But once again, key legislators are reluctant to dedicate general fund revenues to specific programs.

If this were to become law, the danger is that other agencies and interest groups would demand dedicated revenues that are beyond the reach of the General Assembly. The idea of dedicated funds is just another mandate, and mandates are a major cause of budget woes.

Finally there is a terrifying sound of silence in Annapolis over the 3 percent pay raise for state employees, the first in four years. Nobody wants to talk about the increase in an election year.

So far, the only proposal of Mr. Schaefer's to win assembly approval calls for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing victims' rights. But its passage is more symbol than substance because most of the rights outlined in the amendment are already guaranteed by statute. In any case, the amendment would have to be approved by voters in November.

So with the session half over, the score is somewhere around Lions 10, Christians zip. But as they say in the State House, it ain't over 'til it's over. And that's not until April 11.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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