Budget king Puddester, unsung hero

May 21, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

THEY presented McCormick's Unsung Hero awards last week to area high school athletes who were key players on their teams but never receive much public acclaim.

If Maryland government had a similar honor to recognize pivotal team players who remain in the background, the award this year would go to Fred W. Puddester.

Not that Mr. Puddester, the state budget secretary, had a singularly spectacular year: He's been quietly hitting home runs for governors every budget season.

He's got a rare mix of skills: Directness, fairness, honesty, a well-honed sense of humor and two decades of budgeting savvy.

Time after time, Mr. Puddester has pulled a fiscal rabbit out of an apparently empty revenue hat to pay for whatever program the governor du jour wished to propose.

And he knows how to structure the financing so the governor gains the upper hand in budget battles with the General Assembly.

In recent years, that meant layering budget increases so intricately legislators found it inordinately difficult to cut the money.

Before serving Parris N. Glendening, he discovered ways for William Donald Schaefer to weather the recession of the early 1990s without decimating programs.

Yet he's unknown to the public. In the State House, though, he's appreciated. The budget battle is, after all, the most important fight of each year's legislative session.

It's the budget secretary who helps the governor choose the terrain and weapons for this clash.

Much of this power flows from the state constitution, which gives the governor the authority to propose an annual budget to the legislature, a blueprint that can be cut but not increased by lawmakers.

So the budgets Mr. Puddester formulated for governors for over a decade set the tone for General Assembly sessions.

You'd think this would make him Public Enemy No. 1 among lawmakers. His job has been to outmaneuver them and put legislators in such an untenable position they accede to the governor's budget requests.

Yet Fred Puddester is a legislative favorite. He treats lawmakers with respect. He gives them truthful explanations of what's in the budget and why. He laces it with humor. And he's always available to them for questions and help in finding ways out of difficult fiscal predicaments on other bills.

He started on their side of the fence as a legislative budget analyst. He learned the tricks of being a backroom budgeteer from an acknowledged master, William S. Ratchford, the retired and widely admired head of the Department of Fiscal Services.

After Mr. Puddester went to work for Governor Schaefer in 1989, he and his old boss matched fiscal wits at budget time. It was like watching two chess champions, moving their financial pieces around the gameboard, plotting strategy for their respective sides.

The greatest compliment for Mr. Ratchford and Mr. Puddester is that their foes held them in such high regard. At times, Mr. Ratchford would be called in to help a governor out of a complex budgetary bind, or to find a mechanism or a hidden funding source to close an executive-legislative deal.

Similarly, Mr. Puddester would be at the bargaining table with suggestions for lawmakers on how to break a deadlock with a win-win fiscal solution.

Now he is leaving government service after 21 years for the platonic lifestyle of a prestigious campus (chief budget officer at Johns Hopkins University). He's still young enough at 45 to return to government life some time.

He's likely to get plenty of offers over the years. He's not only a brilliant numbers guy but he treats friend and foe alike with courtesy and honesty. That's a much-treasured combination.

Years ago when I started covering state government, budget secretaries were feared, not loved. James P. Slicher, a stern, Germanic numbers-cruncher, ruled with an iron hand. He was a notorious tightwad, known in government circles as the "abominable `no'-man."

Fred Puddester also is adept at the "no" word. But he delivers the message with a pleasant voice and a smile on his face. He helped create a bond between the governor and legislators. He was a bridge for both sides in the budget wars. That made him one of state government's great unsung heroes.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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