General Assembly: Stuck on Sports

February 27, 1994

With the halfway point of this year's General Assembly session behind us, there's not much encouraging news. Lawmakers seem stuck on issues of sports: Is the cost too high for Maryland to open its arms and welcome Jack Kent Cooke's Redskins to Laurel? Can electioneering legislators kill plans for a Baltimore football stadium and divvy up the cash for pet projects?

These are the questions that dominate State House discussion. Yet lawmakers are supposed to be dealing with such knotty social issues as handgun control, health-care reforms, scholarship reforms, procurement reforms, welfare reforms and a needle-exchange program for the city.

All have been lost in the sports shuffle. Some powerful legislators have capitalized on the sports diversion to bury issues they oppose. Getting reforms enacted will take strenuous efforts in the remaining six weeks.

Sen. Walter Baker, for one, has put handgun control in his committee's deep-freeze, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller seems happy to help him along. Mr. Baker also is intent on killing gambling-control bills so as to protect those Eastern Shore slot-machine operations: He's from the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil school of legislating.

Meanwhile, Sen. Clarence Blount wants to preserve legislative scholarships, an unseemly political perk that continues to deprive poor students of crucial financial aid. Mr. Blount is certain his "father knows best" approach to scholarships is superior to the state's impartial and color-blind system.

And then there's Gov. William Donald Schaefer's effort to derail reform of the state's contract-awards system. Some embarrassing scandals in recent years make it clear this procurement system needs fixing. Waiting till the first indictment is announced before acting isn't wise policy.

Mr. Schaefer also is having trouble with his welfare-reform efforts. He'll have to compromise, but finding an acceptable middle-ground won't be easy. A similar situation surrounds the governor's plans to promote tourism. Legislators are on his side but they don't want to set this commitment in stone.

Perhaps the governor's toughest fight concerns his cigarette-tax package. Lawmakers may eventually agree to raise the tobacco levy, but some are worried about busting the legislature's spending ceiling and others want the new revenue aimed at pressing concerns, such as school construction.

Given the heavy workload in front of them, lawmakers ought to set aside their dalliance with sports matters. The governor, in close consultation with legislative leaders, is better equipped to resolve these questions. It is time for delegates and senators to focus exclusively on the big-ticket items on their agenda -- before the April 11 witching hour is upon them.

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