A generous civil servant

February 05, 2004|By Patricia Meisol

Richard Israel and I are standing under umbrellas in the rain in St. Anne's Cemetery, staring at a monument to a pre-Civil War governor of Maryland. Thomas G. Pratt, reads the inscription on this 5-foot-high granite stone. He saved the credit and upheld the honor of his state.

Buried nearby are plenty of interesting people: John Shaw, the cabinetmaker, for one, and James Waddell, the Confederate naval captain who surrendered his ship to the British after the Civil War.

"In Annapolis, there are so many good stories," says Israel, 61, a lawyer and amateur historian. "But this is one people should know about."

The rain is falling in sheets, and Israel, who walks with a limp, gingerly climbs over the snow and ice. I walk behind him carrying his 61-page history of the Maryland governor's current broad power to spend money, power greater than that of any other state governor. Israel is reluctant to part with his paper, a draft, for which he seeks comments from colleagues, including the state's historian. But people have been waiting; lawmakers who pass him on the street stop to ask when it will be finished, and so did an appellate court judge, at a party last week.

Israel himself has been wondering about it for 25 years.

Until he retired in July as a lawyer in the state attorney general's office, part of his job was to advise General Assembly members what they could or could not do with the state budget. They have so little power that he began to wonder why. After all, legislators had total power in 1776, when the first constitution relegated the governor to a junior role, partly in reaction to strong governors under British rule.

Israel knew, of course, that a second budget crisis years after Pratt died led to a constitutional amendment in 1914 that gives the governor nearly total power over the budget. There had been a trend toward giving the governor more power - he could veto bills by 1914 and served four years instead of only one. But what is remarkable, Israel said, is the swap of roles. "It is so unique in the history of legislative bodies, it was worth explaining."

Israel arrived in Annapolis by way of Oxford University and Washington and Lee University Law School. He is frequently recognized in town, as he was this day, by people he has mentored. Never married, he lives a few blocks from Church Circle and gets around largely by foot.

On the walk to the cemetery, Israel began the story with Mr. Pratt, who was elected in 1844 on a platform to pay off the state's debt.

In the 1820s, Maryland lawmakers started passing bond bills to invest in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and by the 1840s, they ran out of money. For six years, they couldn't pay bondholders.

Other states wrote off their debt, but Pratt argued that no one would ever again lend money to Maryland if it didn't repay its debts. Israel speculates that Pratt was influenced by his friend, financier George Peabody, who had gone to London and sold a lot of people there on Maryland bonds.

Pratt raised taxes and, to be sure it didn't happen again, pushed a constitutional convention in 1851 that required lawmakers whenever they issue bonds to raise taxes to cover the debt. This is today's state property tax. Maryland was on solid financial footing - until eight years after Pratt's monument was erected in 1904 and a new crisis loomed. Lawmakers were spending unlimited sums on private charities, and debt piled up. While The Sun exposed government inefficiences day after day, there was social pressure to address ills in the new cities and, in business, the Efficiency Movement swept the country.

One of the movement's foremost advocates was Frank J. Goodnow, president of the Johns Hopkins University, and he favored one of its tenets - an executive in charge of the money - in politics, too. That alone wouldn't have been enough to change things in Maryland. A governor's race was looming, and one candidate, state Comptroller Emerson C. Harrington, was being blamed for failing to head off the state's fiscal crisis. He needed something positive to campaign on, so he embraced making the governor responsible for a balanced budget and proposed it as part of the Democratic party platform.

Israel continues. As we step into Clay Street at Calvert, about to pass the office of the state budget secretary, a taxi driver, his head turned in conversation with another driver, drives into the path we are about to cross. Unable to catch his attention with a yell, Israel bangs on the hood of the taxi to force the driver to stop.

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