The Spend-Now, Worry-Later Legislature

June 12, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

On May 26, William Donald Schaefer had his most impressive moment of gubernatorial power. On that day, his word was law: He dashed all hopes for 41 pieces of legislation on the verge of becoming law. Forever.

It happens once every four years. Under the state constitution, the governor's vetoes in the final year of his term cannot be overridden by the next legislature. So Mr. Schaefer's thumbs-down decision on these 41 measures is final. And since the governor is barred from running for a third term, he can be as blunt and outspoken in these vetoes as he pleases.

Since Mr. Schaefer is no shrinking violet, his veto messages are chock-full of truths that rarely get aired in the State House. He accused the legislature of pre-empting his power, of creating new and costly mandates for state agencies, of running wild with spending edicts that will not only tie the hands of the new governor but worsen the predicted $1.3 billion deficit over the next four years.

Reading through the veto messages is not pleasant. The irresponsible attitude of the House and Senate toward government spending is appalling. Even more troubling is the continuing effort by lawmakers to turn the governor into a eunuch who cannot go to the rest room without first asking permission from the General Assembly.

Here are some of the bills the governor rejected:

* A measure that would render the State Board of Education largely impotent in carrying out reforms -- unless the General Assembly gave its explicit approval and issued the money to pay for its implementation. Virtually no new standard could be adopted if it had a fiscal impact on local schools.

* A bill that would mandate increased spending for local health services. This new mandate would cost $48 million over four years and much, much more in future years. No funding source was identified.

* A bill to add $5 million to the state's mandated obligations for police aid -- even though the legislature didn't bother to find a way to pay for this expense.

* A new grant program for nurses, cynically named after Mr. Schaefer's companion, Hilda Mae Snoops. It amounts to a $300,000 annual raid on the general fund.

* A $2,000 income-tax deduction for volunteer fire, rescue and EMS personnel, which will cost state and local governments $1.5 million a year. Not surprisingly, the legislature didn't have the courage to raise the money to pay for this new tax break for a vested interest.

* A bill requiring $9 million over three years for a welfare-reform experiment the governor disapproved of on policy grounds. That's a big commitment to burden the next governor with.

* A bill to burden the next governor even more with a $24 million commitment to pay for unfunded liabilities in the workers compensation program. Once again, no funding source was designated.

The pattern is clear. Legislative leaders showed absolutely no fiscal discipline. They ordered raids on the state treasury in the years ahead for new programs. But paying for them? That's not something delegates and senators want to mess with. After all, you're re-elected by lavishing funds on interest groups, not raising taxes to pay for these added expenses.

Some $113 million in new spending had to be vetoed by the governor last month. Did legislators suddenly develop amnesia? Had they forgotten about that $1.3 billion deficit looming over the next governor's term in office?

More disturbing is the effort by legislators to curtail the power of the governor to run the executive branch and to submit his own budget. One bill, for instance, would make it illegal for a state agency to reproduce electronically a regulation without first obtaining legislative permission. Micro-management at its worst. No wonder state government is tangled in red tape.

The most egregious bill passed this session was a massive power grab that would have drastically revamped sections of the governor's budget and shifted funds all over the place. It would have put the governor in a budgetary straitjacket, giving the legislature carte blanche to ignore constitutional separation of powers on budget issues.

Mr. Schaefer called it ''a colossal mandated funding bill . . . represent[ing] an unjustifiable intrusion on the executive's budget powers.'' Not only did Mr. Schaefer veto the bill -- as he should have -- he also urged the next governor to do the same if the legislature attempts another unconstitutional intrusion.

This trend isn't new. The General Assembly started impinging on the governor's legal powers under former Gov. Harry Hughes, who was a believer in a laissez-faire executive. Legislators seized on Mr. Hughes' reticence to assert themselves.

Mr. Schaefer, early in his administration, had a chance to reverse this trend through a court challenge to the legislature's budgetary micromanagement of state agencies. But he backed down under threats of retribution from legislative leaders who wanted to preserve their powers to overrule executive decisions.

That's too bad. The next governor will have to act more decisively. Gubernatorial candidates talk bravely these days of reorganizing government, eliminating red tape and bureaucracy and slashing government expenses. It is empty rhetoric if the legislature isn't reined in.

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

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