Mrs. Sauerbrey's Platform Won, Even if She Didn't

January 15, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

In case you missed it, the Republicans in Maryland won last year's election. Not the contest for state elective offices necessarily, but the contest of ideas.

Sure, Republican Ellen Sauerbrey lost the race for governor -- though she's still in a state of denial. Yet look at the distinctly rightward path her Democratic opponent has followed ever since then.

Sure, Republicans remain a minority in the Maryland General Assembly. Yet look at the House leadership's conservative agenda.

A marked change has taken place in the state's Democratic Party. It is now a much more centrist group of political followers. The public's angry mood toward the old Democratic drift to the left and the surprisingly strong Republican trend in November has created a recognition among winning Democrats that pragmatism demands a more conservative approach to governance and legislating.

Look at the state legislature's Democratic leadership. Almost immediately after opening-day ceremonies ended, a raft of bills was introduced in the House to make major reforms in lobbying and ethics procedures, eliminate the patronage scholarship program, reform the welfare system and cut income taxes by 3 percent. That's not the traditional Democratic shopping list as much as it is a heist of the Republican leadership's agenda.

Even more stunning is the transformation of Gov.-elect Parris Glendening. In last year's primary, he campaigned as a liberal Democrat. In the general election, he said he was a mainstream Democrat. Now he's more of a Tsongas conservative -- very hard-nosed on fiscal matters, cautious on new government programs and on extending the reach of government.

He's going to cut the growth rate in the budget proposed by outgoing Governor Schaefer by 50 percent. He's going to start eliminating state agencies and entire departments. He's pulled back from the gun-control debate. He's on a get-tougher-with-criminals drive. He's giving free-market private enterprise top priority -- selective corporate tax cuts, wiping away a morass of bureaucratic red tape, a semi-privatized Department of Economic Development and an aggressive bring-business-to-Maryland drive.

Gone is the Parris ''Spendening'' derided by campaign foes. Gone is the man who made a quarter-billion dollars worth of commitments to interest groups. Gone is the card-carrying liberal Democrat.

He's been liberated by Ellen Sauerbrey. Her near-victory has convinced Mr. Glendening that the Tsongas revolution is upon us in Maryland, that ex-presidential candidate Paul Tsongas was right about the need for politicians to focus like a laser on balancing the budget, downsizing government and making government more responsive to people's needs.

As a result, the governor-elect has shelved his campaign pledges. His overriding objective is to shrink spending to the point where he can give everyone a big income-tax cut in a few years. In other words, a Sauerbrey tax-cut plan in reverse. While she wanted to cut taxes first and then worry about how to pay for it, Mr. Glendening is taking the more fiscally responsible -- and traditionally conservative -- approach of reining in spending before shrinking the tax base.

That's a courageous move in this age of instant gratification. Some Democrats, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, believe that voters want immediate results from their politicians in Annapolis in the form of a tax cut NOW! To satisfy them, the speaker introduced a bill to cut the income tax by 3 percent. That could be asking for big trouble. Any short-term gain could become a political nightmare.

If politicians in Washington adopt a ''middle-class tax cut,'' it will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars -- because deductions on the Maryland tax form mirror federal deductions. If Washington politicians end up turning expensive social programs over to the states, it will cost hundreds of millions more in local dollars to run them. If the Federal Reserve continues to force up interest rates, it could send Maryland's fragile economy into a new tailspin, costing Annapolis hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues (and possibly higher costs for welfare, Medicaid and other social-aid programs).

Add to that list of negatives a $200 million cut in state income taxes and you have the makings for a major fiscal disaster. Maryland would be so far in debt politicians would be forced to do the most unpopular thing of all -- raise taxes only a year after lowering them. What a mess that would be.

Mr. Glendening's cautious approach is not only safer, but logical in its progression. First you change the spending habits of state officials. Then you refashion state government over the summer so it is smaller, yet more consumer-sensitive. Once all that is in place -- and the uncertainty of Washington's fiscal actions has been lifted -- Speaker Taylor and Governor Glendening can link arms and introduce a major tax-reduction plan.

By 1998, voters won't be able to tell the difference between Parris ''I cut taxes and cut government'' Glendening and Ellen ''I wanted to cut taxes and government'' Sauerbrey. Republican-initiated ideas are winning out, even as Democrats continue to win the big elections in Maryland.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.