A topsy-turvy governor's race

November 03, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

A REMARKABLE turnabout has occurred in the campaign for governor. Possibly the most conservative Republican candidate modern Maryland has ever witnessed has become the agent of change while the liberal Democrat has been forced to defend the status quo.

That the political process has been stood on its head is not so much because of the nickle-and-dime tax cuts Ellen Sauerbrey is promising. It's more by implication that many Marylanders believe that the state, like the nation, is heading in an unacceptable direction. It's time to slam on the brakes and make a sharp U-turn.

So while Mrs. Sauerbrey warbles as the voice of the people with catchwords such as downsize and privatize, Parris Glendening is viewed as the defender of the big, the bold and the very expensive brash.

The campaign discourse is a prattle of he said, she said. She's talking about slashing the budget by $800 million, he's proposing adding $300 million to it. Under the color of choice, she wants to begin dismantling the public school system with TC vouchers program; he wants to reinforce public education as a bootstrap path toward success. She's pro-life. He's pro-choice. She's anti-gun control, he's pro-gun control. And on, and on and on.

Identifying Mrs. Sauerbrey with the word "change" is the same as if you accused a doctor of showing you dirty pictures when he's just administering a Rorschach test. Nonetheless, it's true.

And the topsy-turvy result appears to be an unanticipated confluence of what she stands for and what many voters want. And this season's primal scream is that the electorate clearly does not like what it sees.

Thirty years ago Maryland's entire state budget was well under $1 billion -- $900 million to be exact. The income tax was a flat 3 percent and the sales tax was 3 cents. There was no lottery.

Today the budget tops $13 billion, with 80 percent of the money going for programs mandated by federal and state governments. The largest drains are social welfare programs and prisons. Three years ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer enacted the largest tax package -- $800 million -- in state history. Today the income tax is effectively 7 percent, the sales tax is a nickle on the dollar and the lottery is Maryland's third largest source of revenue.

Mrs. Sauerbrey wants to end that upward spiral. Nobody believes she can, but many of the voters seem to be winking and saying, "hey, let's give it a try, for crying out loud."

For in a sense, the voters rejected William Donald Schaefer's money-pit policies in the primary election by defeating three candidates who were either endorsed by him or associated with his administration. Republican Helen Delich Bentley got clobbered. American Joe Miedusiewski took it on the chin, as did Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg.

So if Mrs. Sauerbrey's a metaphor for change in a back-handed way, her programs and policies are a throwback to orthodox Republican politics and laissez faire Rush Limbaughism.

Maryland's governor has more expansive budget powers than most governors. The system was adopted in 1917 and modeled on a doctoral thesis written by the late New York master-planner Robert Moses. So Mrs. Sauerbrey can cut whatever she wants, but the General Assembly can retaliate through the series of checks and balances it has. For example, the legislature must approve gubernatorial nominations for a number of posts, including judgeships and many patronage jobs.

The legislature has only a single constitutional obligation during a 90-day session and that's to enact a budget. The rest is all background noise. If it fails to pass a budget, the clock keeps ticking and the legislature goes into extra days until it comes up with an acceptable spending program. And here's the stick of dynamite: The legislature can cut the budget but it can't add to it. So technically, Mrs. Sauerbrey can have her way.

But wait just a minute! This is not Wheatfields, U.S.A. We're talking about Maryland, joined at the hip with the nation's capital, a diverse state with a large labor base and a polyglot ethnic population. And we're talking about Baltimore, a welfare colony unto itself, a city on a life-support system that's hooked to Annapolis.

To be sure, the Republicans expect to gain seats in the General Assembly, up to 15 delegates and three to six senators. But the General Assembly will remain overwhelmingly Democratic and philosophically moderate-to-liberal.

So the real test for Mrs. Sauerbrey as the agent of change is not so much what the people want as what the General Assembly would be willing to give her.

Maryland's budget, by its nature and structure, is the state's premier social document. It's a form of autobiography that says who we are and what we do for our people and our state -- the Great Society maybe not, a good society, perhaps.

From Mrs. Sauerbrey's corps of advisers there's brave talk not only of cutting the budget and reducing taxes but also of undoing mandates, repealing the prevailing wage law and even commissioning entrepreneurs to build privately owned toll roads. If she's elected, the growth industry in Annapolis will be lobbyists.

It's an ironclad law in the State House that anyone who has 72 votes in the House and 24 votes in the Senate calls the shots. The trick is to get them.

Conservative and change: Oxymorons that could co-exist only in Maryland. Go figure.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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