1996: Year of the Mogul State budget declined, but 3 sports czars did well in Annapolis

April 14, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

At midnight last Monday, Maryland legislators said goodbye to The Year of the Mogul.

In every year, the General Assembly is a jamboree of competing commercial and professional interests. Banks, insurance companies, utilities, the real estate industry, doctors, lawyers, acupuncturists, cosmetologists and newspaper publishers trundle into Annapolis with just the right words and commas to make the statutes read to their liking.

The stakes for individual businessmen are often immense,involving not just turf but taxpayer's money, often spent in the name of economic development, present and future, quantifiable and intangible.

But this year, when the state's operating budget declined for the first time since the 1930s, what the legislature did for three captains of sports industry was truly remarkable:

Peter Angelos, owner of the Orioles, won the right to represent Maryland in potentially lucrative litigation against America's tobacco companies -- and four new judges to help handle the 12,000 asbestos cases he's filed in Baltimore.

Art Modell, the football team owner who fled from Cleveland, now gets a $200 million football stadium at Camden Yards with a cut of virtually every dollar spent there.

Jack Kent Cooke of Washington, owner of the Washington Redskins, gets $70 million for roads and infrastructure improvements necessary for a privately-financed stadium in Landover.

"Two men who can't even vote for anyone in Maryland were the two biggest winners of the session," said lobbyist and former Baltimore circuit court judge Edgar P. Silver, referring to Modell and Cooke and the residency requirement for voters.

With squads of lobbyists, former legislators-turned-lobbyists, cabinet-secretaries-turned lobbyists and current legislators deployed on their behalf, the Moguls usually had their way with the assembly.

Of course, the Moguls could not have gotten their way without the support of individual legislators. And while the million-dollar bon bons seemed never in doubt, they were approved by the slimmest margins. Opponents fought good fights, yet some of them wondered if protest against big money and state leaders was anything more than a fool's errand.

But the stadium legislation, the governor's bill restricting handgun sales and a proposed cut in a program for disabled children did provide some profiles in conviction.

The stadium legislation passed with only two votes to spare in the Senate. Baltimore's Ralph Hughes, thought to be a proponent, voted no:

"You can't in good conscience vote for it when 1,000 people are being laid off every month," he said. His opposition surprised some in the Senate leadership -- a good thing, all in all, suggesting that individual legislators cannot always be taken for granted.

In the House, where the stadiums legislation passed by 10 votes. Del. Ellen Willis, a Carroll County Democrat, voted "yes" for the stadium and for Gov. Glendening's anti-gun violence bill. Neither issue is wildly popular among her constituents.

Ms. Willis's colleagues urged her to reach out to the pro-gun voters of her district, to expand her base, but she declined.

"I ran twice on a platform of believing we needed to show responsibility on gun violence in Maryland. I would have found it difficult to change my position," she said.

But a few legislators neglected to vote at all on some key issues: "walking" or "taking a walk" are the terms usually applied to these derelictions.

House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, did not vote on some of the stadium measures, choosing not to oppose the wishes of his constituents or of his leader, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor.

Uncast votes helped Willard Hackerman, the head of Whiting Turner Construction Co. Mr. Hackerman wants to build a $600 million state-of-the art incinerator on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore. Some area residents do not wish him well and their senator, Perry Sfikas, toiled through the session to block Mr. Hackerman's project.

Mr. Sfikas failed because two votes for his bill, already passed by the Senate, were absent when the vote was taken in a House Committee: one of the legislators was out of the room, the other at a funeral.

Near the end of the 90-day session, a surprise majority overthrew the powerful Appropriations Committee, refusing to accept the view that hard times compelled every painful choice: in this case, a payment of $130 a-month for disabled children. The overall welfare budget had already been cut $11 million.

Inevitably and properly, speakers for the mini-revolution wondered how the assembly's conscience could endure welfare for the wealthy and "self sufficiency" for the poor.

The victory won by those who fought to restore aid to the disabled came at the expense of welfare reform. By the time the big welfare reform measure was handled, the state's $14.6-million budget had been passed, leaving it out of reach of any raid. Increases of spending for the disabled had to be balanced with cuts in other elements of the welfare program.

The reductions were taken, not from stadiums, but from moneythat would have helped recipients move from welfare to work.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun. He covered the recent session of the General Assembly.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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