Dodging trains

January 26, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

ANNAPOLIS CAME down recently with a trappings gap. Walls without official proclamations, desks without name plates or family photos or framed wisecracks.

Dismembered, cracked and discarded cabinets lean against walls. Old TV sets, computer monitors and dense tangles of cable nest in cardboard boxes.

In a governmental transition, winners can look like losers: immersed in boxes, a little panicky, all their stuff in disarray.

So much power, no place to sit. Government in sleep mode.

It's the less glamorous part of the interregnum, the transition of power - more jarring this time because Republicans evicted Democrats who took everything off the walls, pulled out the phones, emptied the file drawers and didn't look back.

The Democratic patronage left the building before the Republican patronage had been "made," to use an old term for the politically appointed.

In the governor's own office, barren walls feature picture-hanging hardware - and two framed copies of newspaper stories: "Ehrlich Wins," etc.

Now he must govern. He has to create a working momentum stepping over boxes, not waiting for someone to hang the pictures that, one senses in their absence, are part of the mystique.

It's subtle, but important, as pressures - some natural, some manmade - build.

Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor and expert on presidential transitions, says new administrations (state as well as federal, presumably) face a series of immutable deadlines roaring down on them like freight trains. Mr. Ehrlich had a $23 billion operating budget to prepare in 10 weeks; a $1 billion construction budget; Cabinet officers to select and screen.

As if to mock him, the rest of the governmental campus fairly hums. Years of incumbency and pockets of expertise proceed as if the new man doesn't matter - even knowing he will eventually be the only one who matters.

Democrats have been the permanent establishment. Permanent, too, are the professionals who serve the senators and delegates - a human infrastructure no new governor can hope to match in the early days of his tenure, if ever.

Mr. Ehrlich served eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates and then eight in the U.S. House of Representatives, so he arrives with a base of political and procedural knowledge.

His new budget secretary, James "Chip" DePaula Jr., crisply addressed the most critical problems he will face: the $1.8 billion budget deficit; an out-of-control Medicaid program; crafting a slot machine bill; and, even as he puts them off for another day, an array of other only marginally less pressing issues: a depleted transportation fund, stubborn pollution in the bay and a crushing prison population. He gets a pass on these matters because there are other freshmen going through the same settlement syndrome. And everyone knows: It's the deficit, stupid.

Yes, but where's the administration's health secretary? Del. John Adams Hurson needs to know. Mr. Hurson chairs the Assembly's new committee on health and governmental relations. Mr. Hurson wants to confer with the health boss so they can work together on controlling costs, expanding coverage and saving important programs like Shock Trauma, the life-saving emergency care service.

Mr. Hurson has been working these issues for 12 years. He knows his party's governor neglected them for the last eight, so he's not throwing stones.

The Montgomery County delegate presides legislatively over issues that will inevitably concern the governor as well: the attempt by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to become a for-profit insurance company. Mr. Hurson proceeds as if his committee and the Assembly will have CareFirst work to do even if the conversion doesn't occur. CareFirst in some form will continue - and may need overhauling.

The new chairman will try to curb the "drivers" that push health care beyond anyone's affordability: the state has a Medicaid program that is both costly and too small. Maryland, one of the nation's wealthiest states, covers fewer poor people than many others.

Action from the new administration is needed today: It's not just the detritus in the hall or the vacant walls. Where's the new health secretary?

And that's just one of the freight trains roaring toward the new boss.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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