Respect for `a great fiscal mind'

Md. legislators turn to Senator Neall to help fix budget woes

March 18, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A year ago, he wanted to quit.

Sen. Robert R. Neall, one of the General Assembly's top numbers guys, was begging off the Budget and Taxation Committee last spring. The Anne Arundel County Democrat thought that the state was spending beyond its means and that his calls for restraint were being ignored.

"I figured there was going to be a mess to clean up, and I don't handle a mop and broom very well," he said.

But Senate leaders persuaded him to stay, and it turns out the former Navy petty officer swabs a mean deck.

Maryland is facing its worst budget troubles in nearly a decade, after years of expansive state spending fueled by steady economic growth. As lawmakers ponder difficult decisions about where to cut, how much to borrow and whether to tax more, they are increasingly looking to Neall for solutions.

In recent weeks, his wry yet authoritative voice has led the way on how to close a $1 billion budget gap while preserving the state's financial ratings. He's urging his colleagues to cut more than they might like, telling them it will be more difficult to return for another round if they don't go far enough.

He wants to hold the line on debt for construction, and he's recommending shutting off the flow of state money to local projects that generate political good will, especially in an election year.

They might not like the medicine, but his colleagues - many of them more liberal Democrats - value his views.

"Whether I agree with him or not, the one thing I agree is we need his mind on that committee," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat and a fellow budget panel member.

Already highly respected, his influence may have grown, friends say, since a switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party two years ago that placed him in the majority and since he took the helm of a budget subcommittee.

"Thank goodness we have a Bobby Neall in a year like this," said former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a longtime colleague. "He just has a great fiscal mind. And the greatness is, he's able to look at the big picture and put it all in perspective."

This year, Neall's mind has encompassed more than the budget. After months of self-guided study, he has become perhaps the most outspoken critic of a proposed sale of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Maryland's not-for-profit health care provider, to a for-profit company.

In his spare time, he's shepherded an important change to the state employee pension system.

"What really makes me tick are the complex issues that a large institution like a state government faces," Neall said. "They can be anything from operation of a pension system, to transportation planning, to trying to put together a budget in a very tight year. I do think I have the ability to synthesize a lot of data. I'm a pretty quick study."

Those abilities, people who know him say, were evident soon after Neall took his first job in state government as a 24-year-old legislative aide.

Growing up in Anne Arundel, he tried three times to get into the Naval Academy without success. After a stint in the Navy, he enrolled at West Point, but dropped out after a year when it became clear that health problems would stymie his career.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, then became an assistant to a Republican senator who was a budget committee member.

"In those three years, I learned more about state government by following the deliberations of that committee than anything I ever could have possibly done," said Neall, 53. When he was elected to his House of Delegates seat, he asked to be assigned to appropriations - where he stayed for 12 years.

"Somebody once said about diets, you are what you eat," he said. "I've spent every day of my legislative service on a budget committee."

This year, nothing illustrates Neall's abilities better than a little-noticed change to the state retirement plan. Neall hated a part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget-balancing effort that would have slashed $65 million from the state's contribution to the pension fund with scant explanation.

So he quietly spooned another topic onto his plate. The result: a proposed change to the retirement system that would bring more predictability to the state's payments. As long as assets are within a certain range, the state contribution would be a fixed percentage of the program's costs. The move, expected to be approved, would save $48 million next year.

"He's incredibly intelligent. He understands not only the issues, but the implications of the issues," said Frederick W. Puddester, the former state budget secretary who is now budget chief at the Johns Hopkins University.

With his fondness for actuarial tables and grasp of interest-rate spreads, one might think Neall would be a boring paper-pusher. Instead, he's famously funny. He is a master of the clever quip that can disarm bureaucrats and lawmakers at public hearings.

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