Bumpy takeoff for Air Parris

April 05, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

AIR PARRIS gained final approval for takeoff this week, giving Maryland's governor a brand-new turboprop plane to jet around the country.

That could be trouble for legislators who gave the OK, under pressure from the governor. Voters don't take kindly to public luxuries. It's a $5 million perk -- with 12 posh leather seats, a "richly appointed ... spacious interior" and an "ultra-quiet" ride. All for the enjoyment of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and friends.

What a wonderful way to travel to events representing the National Governors' Association; conferences where he'll speak on his pet Smart Growth program; and education meetings where he can fortify his bona fides, perhaps, as a future university chancellor.

Oh, and by the way, that luxury Raytheon King Air 350 will come in handy extraditing prisoners to other states. That will take the King Air out of gubernatorial hands about a month each year.

The rest of the time, it's the governor's to fly. For a mere $250,000 a year, this lease-purchase deal gives Mr. Glendening a plush goody.

He tried to sneak it through, attaching it to a supplemental budget request submitted so late that lawmakers would have been forced to reject the entire budget to shoot down the plane.

His aides had the temerity to defend this sweet deal on the grounds that the state needs a new plane to transport prisoners.

Senators smoldered. An agitated Tommy Bromwell of Baltimore County twice warned colleagues, "That airplane is going to be an albatross around my neck."

Another senator said lawmakers had been "intentionally misled" on the governor's stealth plane.

Asked one legislator: If ordinary folks fly safely in aircraft far more ancient than the current state-government plane (which is 20 years old), why can't the governor?

Sen. Donald Munson of Washington County spoke for many lawmakers when he referred to it, simply, as "that damned airplane."

Defending the King Air -- billed by Raytheon as "a perfect complement to a corporate jet fleet" -- won't be easy in next year's elections. Worse yet, every trip the governor takes on his plane will be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

Shades of the Clintons carting out White House furniture. Or Gov. Marvin Mandel's numerous air junkets of the 1970s.

Air Parris symbolizes legislative irritation with Mr. Glendening's sky's-the-limit budget -- a big-spending document at odds with the bleak outlook.

"Bad times are on the horizon," said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer of Howard County. His sentiments were echoed by others.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Madden of Howard County noted that revenues are expected to rise only 3 percent but the governor's plan calls for a spending increase of 8 percent -- on top of 9 percent last year. Maryland is emptying its treasury -- paying out $907 million more than it takes in.

Gone is that $1 billion surplus of two years ago. It went to pay for expanded programs, salary hikes for teachers and state workers, Smart Growth land acquisitions, a big aid boost for state colleges.

Meanwhile, "there are economic warning lights flashing all around us," said Mr. Madden -- high electric and gasoline prices, a manufacturing recession, a plummeting stock market and numerous high-tech layoffs. The governor's massive spending approach is "fundamentally wrong," he said.

The most damning dissent, though, came from Sen. Robert R. Neall, the General Assembly's preeminent fiscal expert.

He's a conservative Republican turned Democrat, a former Anne Arundel county executive, a budget subcommittee chairman and a dogged advocate for sensible, affordable budgeting.

The governor's King Air stunt mirrored other moves by Mr. Glendening to turn the legislature into fiscal bystanders. Mr. Neall wanted to stand up to the governor and reduce the budget in recognition of the harsh economic times that may soon arrive.

Instead, lawmakers knuckled under to the governor and cut deals with him that only added to the size of this top-heavy budget.

It was, in Mr. Neall's mind, a travesty.

"I will not continue to work under these conditions. It is not healthy. It is not right. It is not fair. And it is unconstitutional," he said.

He told his colleagues he's quitting the budget committee.

That would be a huge blow. He's the most knowledgeable spokesman for sound stewardship of public funds. His withdrawal would be a victory for advocates of unrestrained spending.

Times could get rough. Legislative analysts already predict a $300 million shortfall next year -- even without a recession.

"We are at the top of the roller coaster," said Mr. Neall, "and there's only one way to go."

Mr. Neall's words ought to be heeded: "We are spending when we should be saving. We should be cautious instead of being `progressive.' And we should be careful because these are public monies entrusted to us."

Sadly, legislators didn't challenge the governor. So Maryland may be in for what the House minority whip, Robert Flanagan of Howard County, called a "self-inflicted budgetary crisis" of "excessive growth and foolish spending."

If storm clouds arrive, Air Parris could encounter extreme turbulence before his luxury plane heads for a final landing late next year.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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