Blame the Tinhorns in the State Senate

April 17, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

What went wrong in the State House this year? How is it that the General Assembly session ended this past week with so little the way of significant accomplishments?

Don't blame it on William Donald Schaefer this time.

In the past, he may have been petulant, unsympathetic and arrogant in dealing with lawmakers. But not this year. Governor Schaefer proved the model of diplomacy and accommodation. He was both sensible and cunning, flexible and encouraging. Yet his modest package of bills was decimated at session's end.

Don't blame this debacle on House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, either.

When you look at the list of failures this session -- among them, weak gun-control legislation; no tobacco-tax hike; no statewide gambling commission; no welfare cap; no reform of the legislative scholarship program; a meager lead-paint removal bill; crackdown on disclosing gift-giving by lobbyists -- the House of Delegates is not guilty. It generally did its part, often taking forceful positions.

The culprit was clearly the state Senate, and its presiding officer, Thomas V. Mike Miller.

It was in the Senate that the log jams occurred. That's where the do-nothing mentality was strongest, where the needs to pave the way to re-election superseded the need to enact meaningful and far-reaching laws.

It is also where tinhorn dictators sprouted up in key committees, often taking their cues from Mr. Miller.

Whereas democracy started to bloom and prosper in the House under Mr. Taylor, democratic principles were trampled time and again in the Senate under Mr. Miller. In particular, Senators Walter Baker and Clarence Blount decided that their views alone were sufficient to nullify the will of the majority on their committees. They simply refused to bring to a vote proposals that they disliked.

Other times, votes were arranged to produce the results that Mr. Miller desired. Sen. Laurence Levitan abetted Mr. Miller's cause on the tobacco-tax issue, for example. It was not very pretty, and not very productive.

You've got to feel sorry for Messrs. Schaefer and Taylor. They expended considerable energy over those 90 days working to craft consensus legislation -- only to see Mr. Miller and his obstreperous Senate stamp out nearly every creative and progressive initiative.

The Senate under Mr. Miller has devolved into a bombastic, egocentric debating society run by a handful of myopic, self-important individuals. More often than not, it is the House that does the nitty-gritty work to craft legislation and the Senate that reacts emotionally and politically.

When it came time to butt heads with the special interests, it was the Senate that more often than not opted for the easy way out. This was especially the case with senators facing tough re-election bids, who plan to turn to these same special interests to finance their six-figure campaigns. The quid pro quo was the order of the day.

Governor Schaefer, in particular, did not deserve such rude treatment in his eighth and last General Assembly session. Yes, he has been a controversial figure in the State House. Yes, he has often treated legislators with disdain. But on the whole, he has shown more vision and concern for the entire state's welfare than anyone else in Annapolis.

Moreover, his 1994 proposals well suited an election-year legislature: nothing too controversial, but numerous small-ticket items aimed at helping the state's needy and improving the effectiveness of delivering government services.

Yet the Senate obliterated a large number of these proposals. Mr. Schaefer's pleadings and fireside chats were rudely ignored. The Senate, clearly, believed it was in charge, not the governor.

Mr. Miller and Co. may have taken great pride in mangling so many bills and bringing the General Assembly to such a dismaying conclusion. The Senate could get away with this in the governor's lame-duck year, especially when the House was still adjusting to its new speaker.

Next year could be a different story. None of the leading contenders for governor -- Parris Glendening, Helen Bentley or Melvin Steinberg -- is likely to stand for such behavior. Nor is Mr. Taylor if he is re-elected speaker. And there is no guarantee that the next Senate, where turnover could be massive, will want to continue to play this obstructionist, anti-democratic role.

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

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