A marveling yokelry ponders the mighty works of Annapolis

April 06, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- In the very olden days in Annapolis, when legislators were paid $2,400 a year and didn't even have telephones at their desks on the House or Senate floor, there was nostalgia mixed with excitement each year as the General Assembly droned toward its final adjournment.

The legislators were weary, of course, but they knew they'd been doing important stuff, and for the most part having a pretty good time, too. They liked one another, and they liked playing the government game. Quite a few of them wished they could play it all year round.

Unelected participants in the Annapolis show felt the same way. As a legislative reporter, I remember very well the bittersweet atmosphere of adjournment sine die. Socially, it meant a sudden separation from some friendly and amusing company. Professionally, it meant fewer opportunities to produce interesting stories without working especially hard to get them. Overall, it meant a return to a more humdrum and much less independent life.

For a reporter, adjournment meant working out of the city room again, and being told by editors what to cover each day, instead of wandering through the lush General Assembly orchard and plucking succulent stories off the trees. It meant a return to regular hours, and fewer expense-account meals. It meant the end of those long working evenings around the Maryland Inn bar, receiving a rich education in life and politics and getting paid overtime -- well, compensatory time, which made for nice long vacations -- for receiving it.

If only The People understood what good work was being done on their behalf during the legislative session, it was often suggested during those amiably beer-drenched evenings, they wouldn't be so stubborn in their resistance to a full-time legislature. Yes, someone would inevitably respond, and it's all because The Media are so biased in their coverage.

Here there would be a buzz of agreement, and heads would usually turn toward one of the reportorial hangers-on. But confrontations were few, and someone would always whisper comfortingly that ''of course he doesn't mean you, Pete'' -- or Charlie, or Jim, or Martha, or whoever was nearest. One secret of success in a legislative context is being able to separate the general from the personal.

I don't get to Annapolis much any more during the legislative session, wouldn't know most of the people if I did, and couldn't maintain the social or professional pace even if I tried. Reporters' legs go, just the way outfielders' do, and once that happens, if they persist in trying to play the game the way they used to, they embarrass themselves and everyone who watches.

But I suspect that much about the session remains the same, including the natural nostalgia as adjournment nears, and the insiders' sense that The People out there in the state don't really understand what's going on in Annapolis, which is why they don't sufficiently appreciate the efforts being made by their elected representatives on their behalf.

Perhaps that's right. Certainly the current mood among the yokelry -- those of us who don't get to Annapolis much and aren't on intimate terms with most of the players there -- is suspicious at best and downright hostile at worst. We're relieved, not nostalgic, that the General Assembly session is coming to an end once again.

National joke

If anything about this session has made a positive impression, it's that at least some efforts have been made to undo some of the damage done to the state by legislatures past. Most notably, this session of the Assembly has, very timidly and tentatively, tried to undo some of the tax and regulation policies that have made Maryland a national joke.

''If Maryland's job growth had only kept pace with the national average during this decade,'' the Wall Street Journal noted a couple of days ago, ''it would employ more than 200,000 more people than it does today.'' The yokelry understands that only too well, and comprehension is at last dawning on significant numbers of legislators that policies they approved or condoned are a main reason that those jobs don't exist.

Symbolically, one of this session's proudest achievements was its refusal to knuckle under to the federal government and approve mandatory treadmill-testing for Marylanders' cars. That tosses this quite warm potato into the lap of Gov. Parris Glendening. The yokelry, which understands the potato-toss game very well, recognizes and appreciates a certain elegance in this legislative move. Now it is watching attentively to see what happens next.

Soon our groggy representatives will be emerging from the fog of nostalgia and self-congratulation now blanketing Annapolis and heading home. Like eager golden retrievers, they'll be appearing on our doorsteps asking us what they can do for us now. Yet when we suggest shorter sessions, lower pay and term limits, they'll view that as a sign, not of their shortcomings, but of our ignorance.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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