In this election year, controversial stances likely to be scarce as hen's teeth in Annapolis

January 11, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

LOOKING for some central themes in the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday? Here's one that you can bank on from now until the concluding midnight gavel on April 13: avoidance.

This is an election year, which means everything in the State House will be viewed in political terms. Incumbents will avoid taking positions that could cost them votes. They tend to shy away from controversies in election years. They want to apply window dressing for voters to admire, but not go too far for fear of offending.

Holding pattern

Whatever the issue, legislators and the governor will seek to avoid positions or votes that give opponents a possible opening. That means most major matters will be put off until 1999.

On some controversies, lawmakers will try to please everyone. Take the matter of Democratic state Sen. Larry Young and the ethics committee inquiry into his for-profit activities.

Senate President Mike Miller will probably have to impose some sanctions, but he worries about angering some other black legislators if he comes down too hard on Mr. Young. The result is likely to be a compromise that satisfies neither Mr. Young's supporters nor the outraged public.

Similarly on pension enhancements for state workers and teachers, lawmakers will seek a middle ground.

Yes, the current benefits program is inadequate, but the plan proposed by the pension board saddles state taxpayers with a )) $3 billion pension obligation in future years.

Adopting this plan would open legislators to charges of fiscal irresponsibility while pandering for votes from retired teachers and state workers. That would make lawmakers easy targets on the campaign trail. Thus, any major changes will likely wait until after the election.

Tax cuts fall in that same category.

The governor and legislators would love to chop another 5 or 10 percent off the income-tax rate and fully embrace Eileen Rehrmann's proposal to wipe out the state property tax levy for 1998. It's a natural in an election year.

Except that this would be so harmful to the well-being of the state that lawmakers, though tempted, won't do it. They may adopt some token tax reductions, but not much else.

Take the fish-kill controversy. Eastern Shore farmers don't want to be taxed or forced to alter their nutrient run-off practices. But environmental officials insist only a major change in how farmers apply chicken manure to their crops can help end Pfiesteria outbreaks. Lawmakers want to avoid ticking off farmers or environmentalists. Look for a compromise plan that avoids immediate enforcement action.

Farmers also stand little chance of winning their argument for establishing a cartel in Maryland to control the price of milk.

In non-election years, urban lawmakers might be willing to help out their rural colleagues, but not when urban constituents could blame them for higher milk prices. It's the kind of issue that can cost an incumbent an election.

Don't look for definitive action on electric-power deregulation this year, either. Forcing lawmakers in the coming 90 days to confront this highly complex issue that few understand would be cruel and unusual punishment -- and potentially damaging to constituents. Now that the Public Service Commission has delayed the start of deregulation, senators and delegates can avoid a quick vote and hopefully make some informed decisions next year.

Avoidance will prevail in the gambling arena, too. Those pressing for a referendum on slot machines know it isn't popular in the state Senate, where members want to duck the issue for at least another year.

Senators also would like to duck taking a position on an ill-sited convention hotel a mile away from Baltimore's Convention Center. It is too controversial with some important political contributors. Best to avoid.

Thanks to a booming economy, Maryland lawmakers and the governor have plenty of extra cash to toss into education, health and public safety programs. That is about as far as they will go in risk-taking this session.

The operative slogan for lawmakers over the next three months is likely to be: When in doubt, avoid.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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