A calm governor toils against the clock

March 27, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Time is not on Gov. William Donald Schaefer's side, and he knows it.

In just two weeks, the 1994 General Assembly will pack up and go home, taking with it the 72-year-old governor's last chance to mold his legacy.

Between now and then, he wants to persuade legislators to approve the final initiatives of his gubernatorial career -- a ban on assault pistols, welfare reform, a new tobacco tax, and better adoption and child support laws.

It's a tall order in an election year, especially because gun control and welfare issues are more than a little explosive. But Mr. Schaefer, a man who turned temper tantrums into an art form earlier in his administration, remains remarkably calm and focused.

"We are going on the presumption we're going to be here another four years," said Mr. Schaefer, who is legally barred from seeking a third term and will leave office in January.

"I don't want any letdown. I want to pass the legislation and keep going until the day we close up shop and I walk out the door."

His willingness to keep plugging has not gone unnoticed.

"I give credit to Schaefer the man. The guy's still swinging," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a former House majority leader from Hagerstown. "A lot of people would've said, 'Bag it, I'm going to spend the next few months beside the fireplace, enjoying the comforts of the office.' "

Actually, Mr. Schaefer does enjoy his office hearth. He said it has done wonders to improve his mood and his relationship with lawmakers, whom he used to consider Public Enemy No. 1.

"They came up raving mad and they sat by my fire and we were able to think things out," he said, glancing toward the crackling fire. Addressing his questioner, he added, "Even you're mellower than you were when you came in."

Whether the fire can claim credit or not, Mr. Schaefer is certainly on better terms with many folks in Annapolis. "My relationship with him has never been more cordial," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime antagonist. "There hasn't been one harsh word between us."

That hasn't always been the case. In his first term and part of his second, Mr. Schaefer engaged in a near-constant power struggle with the legislature.

'Can't do without me'

Lawmakers believed he wanted to dominate them the way he did the Baltimore City Council when he was mayor. The governor believed legislators wanted to do his job for him.

"We now understand our positions," the governor said. "They can't do too much without me. I can't do too much without them."

It's a startling concession for someone who once declared war on the General Assembly, but then again, it's one of several turnabouts for Mr. Schaefer.

He used to insist that his bills pass virtually untouched by legislative hands, but now he is willing to entertain amendments. In fact, he has repeatedly told lawmakers to fix his bills if they have problems with them, rather than kill the bills outright.

Help from delegates

Perhaps not coincidentally, he has enjoyed some crucial help from lawmakers this year. Mr. Miller, for one, gave the governor's assault pistol ban a significant boost by sending a version of the bill to a friendly committee. Because of that maneuvering, the bill reached the Senate floor for the first time and passed.

The gun control measure survived an important vote in a House of Delegates committee yesterday, but its future is uncertain. If the full House tacks on even one little amendment, the bill would have to return to the Senate, where it could die in a filibuster.

Mr. Schaefer has received help on another issue from female delegates. The women are championing his adoption bill, which would make it easier for foster children to find permanent homes by speeding up the adoption process. The House Judiciary Committee defeated the measure, but several women are trying to persuade House leaders to reconsider.

Another of the governor's social proposals, welfare reform, has run into problems in the House. Some delegates are concerned because senators changed the bill so it would lift restrictions on state-financed abortions for poor women.

The future is cloudier for the governor's bill to speed up appeals in death penalty cases. Senators and delegates alike have significantly weakened the measure, although the lost provisions could be restored.

Mr. Schaefer may face his toughest battle with his proposed 25-cents-a-pack cigarette tax. Lawmakers, not surprisingly, do not relish the idea of raising any kind of tax before an election, especially in a year when the budget will balance without it.

But Mr. Schaefer wants the tax for health reasons: He believes that higher costs will discourage children from smoking.

Schaefer's last hurrah

The governor has issued an ultimatum. Unless the legislature raises tobacco taxes by at least 12.5 cents a pack, he will withhold a supplemental budget appropriation and indirectly jeopardize money legislators want for pet projects and programs.

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