Legislative Cowardice

April 13, 1994

The dictionary defines cowardice as "lack of courage, esp., shamefully excessive fear of danger, difficulty or suffering." That sums up the performance of Maryland's General Assembly over the past three months: no stomach for tackling the major issues and no political desire to affront special-interest groups in this election year.

This session's list of failures is far longer than the list of successes. The operative word was extreme caution. By doing so, lawmakers ran afoul of that old adage, "No risk, no gain."

Not much was achieved. A $13.5 billion budget won approval without any new taxes (and a tax break for folks with adjusted gross incomes above $150,000). Badly needed school-construction funds were sharply increased to over $100 million. State employees got a 3 percent pay raise -- the first in three years.

The first half of the session was lost in a forgettable and unnecessary argument over the building of two football stadiums in Laurel and Baltimore. In typical legislative fashion, leaders managed to finesse the entire issue, postponing all decisions but wasting losts of precious time with angry rhetoric.

Still, there were small advances. An experimental needle-exchange program was approved for Baltimore City to help control the spread of AIDS. Year-round schools were made permissible. Blood-alcohol tests for drunk drivers became mandatory in life-threatening accidents. Laws to protect against domestic violence were strengthened. A cap of $500,000 was set on "pain and suffering" awards in liability cases. Child-support enforcement was improved.

Yet the state's broader needs were ignored. Multi-million-dollar gambling operations continued to evade regulatory oversight. Efforts to reform the welfare system were ambushed from both the left and right. Gun control was approved but in such a limited way it is largely symbolic. A bill to reduce lead-paint hazards in older housing was so watered down that some backers called it meaningless. And tougher prison sentences for repeat violent offenders were approved, but at a cost that could exceed $200 million for the next administration.

Much of what occurred was defensive legislating. Senators and delegates were terrified to do anything that might endanger their future. So nothing significant was achieved. That's why Gov. William Donald Schaefer's modest legislative package met such strong resistance. He wanted to argue the substance of his proposals, but lawmakers only wanted to do what was best for their re-election.

In the end, legislators got what they wanted. Now they have to explain to constituents why they wasted so much time and taxpayer money in Annapolis -- and came away with so little. That could complicate their summer campaigns. The 1994 session was a vast disappointment. We expected much more from our elected lawmakers.

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