Disappointing work in Annapolis

April 13, 1994

Counting the successes of the 1994 General Assembly session that just ended is easy: You can do it on the fingers of one hand. But adding up the failures of this disappointing meeting isn't nearly that simple: You need more than two hands.

When it came to the art of legislating, Maryland's elected senators and delegates took a vacation this session. Their only concern was paving the way for their reelection campaigns. No one wanted to risk voting for controversial measures that might offend any group of constituents.

They said "no" to significant welfare reform, regulating gambling, speedier death-penalty appeals, moving toward higher cigarette taxes, abolishing the scandalous legislative scholarship awards program, cracking down on gifts they receive from lobbyists, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and clearing the way for more timely adoptions.

Instead, they wasted weeks debating how badly Maryland wants one or two National Football League teams -- and then avoided a decision. They found time to pass legislation making the diamondback turtle the official mascot of the University of Maryland and square dancing the official state folk dance -- to help attract square-dance conventioneers. And they passed a xenophobic bill making English the state's official language, a bit of superfluous, racially motivated nonsense that summed up the superficial nature of this session.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's eighth and last session turned into a disaster. It wasn't his fault. Mr. Schaefer submitted a well-intentioned, limited package of modest proposals. He didn't expect the "head for the hills" reaction from jittery lawmakers focused on their reelection campaigns. Most of his major initiatives were killed or diluted. Among his achievements: a symbolic ban of 18 assault pistols; child-support laws to improve collections and enforcement; a $100 million school-construction budget and a bill to increase sharply the penalty for selling cigarettes to teen-agers.

Even when legislators tried to make a meaningful contribution, they failed. Yes, they increased the time prisoners must spend behind bars for violent crimes. But the cost: $92 million for a new prison to contain the mandated overflow, and close to $30 million each year to take care of these additional inmates. That's progress?

Voters ought to take a hard look at the performance of their district legislators at this session. Did their representatives truly achieve anything of note? Did their representatives tackle the big issues that confront this state? Do their representatives deserve another term in Annapolis? It could be a tough year on the campaign trail for these legislators -- and deservedly so.

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