End of a long trail in Annapolis

April 07, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IT'S rush hour in the General Assembly. And the best seats available are in the House lounge where the smoke is as thick as a spring fog bank.

Here the delegates come and go, weaving among the coffee makers, bottled-water coolers and fine upholstery. The feeling in the final five days is not so much one of relief as it is of bitter resignation. It hasn't been an easy four years.

To begin with, about 50 percent of the 141 Jacks and Jills in the House of Delegates won't be coming back next year. In the Senate, the proportion is slightly lower. About 35 percent of its 47 members will be picking up gold watches. They'll be the victims of reapportionment, resignation and outright defeat. (And more defections may be on the way.)

Highest on the House grudge list is the Big Tuna himself, Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The chatter is that he double-crossed some of his closest supporters and allies when he drew up the reapportionment plan that will claim a number of House victims. And for that, he may be gone next year but not forgotten.

There is the claim, too, that Mr. Schaefer and his oversized staff lack people skills and bow-down finesse when it comes to dealing with members of the legislature, that after eight years in his second floor bunker the governor still hasn't mastered the fine art of massaging lawmakers.

For despite all the bluster and bravura about leadership and independence and co-equal status, legislatures by their very nature are not decision-making bodies. More often than not, they need someone to take them by the hand and lead them in the right direction.

Mr. Schaefer is also faulted for his inept use of patronage, the system of rewards and punishments that eases the way for legislation and keeps cooperative lawmakers happy.

For if truth be told, Mr. Schaefer governs with a scowl and a threat. Witness, for example, his latest stiff-arm attempt to get his way -- no cigarette tax increase, no supplemental budget. The standoff was resolved, though, through a compromise that spared everybody's egos.

Mr. Schaefer still hasn't learned the "nevers" of politics, as in never ask legislators to vote for a tax increase in an election year. And never ask a legislator for a vote that'll hurt back home. In previous years, Mr. Schaefer's sulks included threats to lay off state troopers as When the bills fall due for the Schaefer years, the next hapless governor and the next General Assembly will have to figure out how to pay them.

well as to cut off funds for the developmentally disabled.

Nor is the House itself a shiny-bright model of efficiency and harmony. For three years -- and four years before that -- this class of delegates wriggled and writhed under the heavy-handed leadership of former Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and the weight of three successive years of deficit budgets.

And for two straight years, the tiny band of minority Republicans made monkeys out of the majority Democrats over bloated budgets and the incredibly bloviated institution of government.

And finally, Mr. Mitchell, with his customary pluperfect panache, threatened to strip his House committee chairman of their epaulets unless they went along with the largest tax increase ($800 million) in state history.

But in the end, Mr. Mitchell had had enough. After securing a cushy state job for his son, he resigned from the House and Casper R. Taylor Jr., of Allegany County, engineered a takeover that would have been envied in a Medici palace. To win the speakership, it is said, Mr. Taylor gave away everything but his parking space, and in doing so realigned the House leadership ** to conform with his deal-making. So for the past 85 days, the House and its new speaker have been in a getting-to-know-you mode just when it's time to pack up and leave.

What made this General Assembly's four-year cycle all the more difficult was that it was elected at the height of the recession along with a governor who was viewed as a lame duck throughout his second term.

There was, too, the whiplash of voter anger along with a demand for change as well as a primal scream for less government and lower taxes. In many instances, however, Mr. Schaefer forced this General Assembly to buck the popular tide.

He insisted on creating new programs and fattening existing ones, adding costly cabinet departments, bloating his personal staff to 125 and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars junketing around the world in search of foreign investments for Maryland.

Add to these the insults of his nasty letters to constituents, his Saturday morning, finger-wagging visits to those who would dare disagree with him, his potty-mouthed characterization of the Eastern Shore, the state troopers guarding his Anne Arundel County townhouse.

When the bills fall due for the Schaefer years, the next hapless governor and the next General Assembly will have to figure out how to pay them. The Schaefer administration's own budget department is projecting a pinch-penny legacy of four successive years of deficits beginning in 1995 that will reach as much as $269 million in 1998.

In the nicotine-stained House lounge, it's tough letting go of yesterday.

Frank A. DeFilippo specializes in Maryland politics.

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