Call It a Do-Nothing Legislature

March 27, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Call it a do-nothing session of the Maryland General Assembly. When the final gavel rings down on April 11, chances are lawmakers will have accomplished little of note. As a morose Governor Schaefer put it at a cabinet meeting last week, all legislators seem interested in is posturing so they can look good at re-election time later this year.

If this were the only thing happening in the State House, it would be only mildly disturbing. But much more is taking place, little of it for the good. The State House remains leaderless, with no direction or purpose being set out by those in charge. The result is an aimless and in some ways counter-productive 90-day session.

Look at the situation in the House and Senate. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, new to the job, is still feeling his way. His efforts to pacify as many legislative cliques as possible leave him little time for setting a firm course or thinking about the long-term statewide issues the General Assembly should be addressing. He has enough of a problem figuring out what his counterpart, Senate President Mike Miller, is up to.

Mr. Miller is an enigmatic figure. At times, he acts like a legislative statesman. Sometimes he twists arms to get a worthy bill approved. More frequently, he's a plotting, parochial Prince George's County politico. Mr. Miller seems to lack any long-term vision, either for himself or for the state. He's more of an ad hoc, day-to-day presiding officer trying to surmount the immediate political skirmish before him.

This dearth of focused leadership in the legislature accounts for much of the current wheel-spinning.

In the Senate, two committee chairmen have stepped into the leadership void to assume dictatorial powers. Sen. Walter Baker simply shelves anything sent to his committee that is too liberal to his liking or detrimental to his own Cecil County. There's no democracy here at all. Sen. Clarence Blount this session also has opted for this technique by sitting on the scholarship-reform bill and a lobbyist-disclosure reform measure.

Even Mr. Miller has tried this tactic, stepping in to order his budget committee chairman to kill a cigarette-tax increase. That helps Mr. Miller in his re-election efforts in a new district that includes a chunk of Southern Maryland where tobacco is still king, but it puts a knife in the back of budget chairman Laurence Levitan and his re-election chances: That tobacco tax hike would pay for millions in extra school aid for Mr. Levitan's Montgomery County. Unless he can bring home big chunks of pork this session, Mr. Levitan's re-election outlook is grim.

Over in the House, the confused leadership situation has led to some abysmal performances by committee chairmen. Del. Joseph Vallario has reinforced the Judiciary Committee's macho, anti-female reputation and its pro-lawyer attitude. Committee positions are often anachronistic or laced with a smug self-interest.

Even more embarrassing has been the performance of Del. Gerald Curran's new committee on Commerce and Government Matters.

That panel became a shill for the legislature's lobbyists by gutting a disclosure bill on gifts to legislators and making a sham of the existing law. Mr. Curran's explanation was pathetically weak.

But his defense of another committee vote in favor of a xenophobic ''English-only'' bill was nonsensical: he admitted there is no ''serious need today'' for the bill and that the bill really doesn't change existing law. Yet he concluded, ''that is not sufficient reason not to pass it.''

All this was too much even for House Speaker Taylor, who ordered Mr. Curran to rewrite the lobbyist disclosure bill to take out the provisions favored by lobbyists. The full House went even further, sharply lowering the threshold for reporting gift-giving to legislators. But do not fear, Mr. Blount still stands tall against reform measures on gift-giving.

Compounding this drift in the General Assembly is the situation in the governor's suite, where Mr. Schaefer watches power slowly slip away from him in his final year in the State House. He has little influence in the legislature any more -- except for his formidable threat to veto bills. The governor's wishes don't seem to matter much to lawmakers these days. They listen politely and then do what they want.

By shelving key issues and piling up delayed debt for the next governor and legislature to handle, this General Assembly isn't doing voters any favors. But when they hit the campaign trail, these incumbents will claim great achievements. A closer examination of the record indicates otherwise.

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

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