Legislature must do more than say 'no' to new ideas


The Maryland General Assembly seems to have embraced President Bush's old line -- Read my lips: no new taxes -- and discovered that it seems to play well with voters in a heavily Democratic state during a recession. No surprises there.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and His Not So Merry Band are continuing to throw new and expanded programs up on the wall, programs that represent exciting and innovating approaches to how we tax ourselves, how we distribute government spending around the state, how we educate our children and how we stimulate the state economy so it can participate in the science-based industries that will be tomorrow's economic engines.

By the time the legislature departs next month (a deadline that can't come too soon for many Solons), precious few of Don's offerings will have stuck to the wall and found their way into the law of this land. The Merry Band is not so merry about this but, really, no one seems very surprised about this turn of events, either.

In fact, the intent of this 397th gathering of Maryland's legislature was pretty well stamped in steel at the beginning of the session.

This is a recession year. Government spending must be cut. The voters made their anti-tax feelings painfully clear in the November elections, throwing several liberal spenders out of office.

The result of all this is a hunker-in-the-bunker mentality.

Now, I usually get revved up at about this point in my weekly indulgences in rhetorical excess. Having carefully loaded my minuscule cannon with as much powder and shot as it will hold, I proceed to blast away, in this case at the legislators and perhaps even our incredibly frustrated governor.

However, there's too much bad blood in Annapolis already. Besides, you might have noticed that we ARE in a recession.

Nationally, the stock market has been telling us the worst may be over. Stocks normally turn up about six months in advance of an economic recovery, which would mean a return to better times sometime during the third quarter of the year.

However, the February unemployment figures were just plain miserable, showing an increase in the national jobless rate to 6.5 percent and widespread weakness in the economy.

Despite the market's buoyancy, it's just too early to put this downturn into the history books. We'll know if things are getting better, and if the end of the Persian Gulf war is an economic tonic, when the March figures start coming in.

At the state level, where the jobless figures are a month behind federal statistics, we got some solace in hearing that the jobless rate in January of 6.1 percent was unchanged from the revised December figure. The decline in the Baltimore rate to 9.1 percent from 10 percent was especially encouraging.

Unfortunately, these numbers tell only half the story. Perhaps the real message from Maryland's January jobless report was that the volume of discouraged workers -- folks who stop looking for work and therefore drop out of the labor force -- seemed to be so large that the state's labor force declined by nearly 12,800 people in January.

Together, Baltimore and Baltimore County lost nearly 10,000 from their labor forces, with the amount split about equally between city and county.

FTC This number is so large compared with the two area's combined labor force of about 720,000 people that I expect it to be revised in subsequent months. But for now, it looks as if the region's economy provides no cause for favorable comparison with national figures.

The uncertain short-term outlook for the state's economy makes it clear why the legislators are less than open this year to revising the state's tax code and adding substantial new taxes (the Linowes Commission), tacking another nickel onto the gasoline tax or providing new dollars (and committing to even bigger expenditures in the years ahead) for an expanded convention center in Baltimore, a jazzy marine research complex (the Christopher Columbus Center) or for new biotechnology and telecommunications initiatives.

The governor and his Not So Merry Band cannot be surprised by this, especially not after upsetting the psyches and constituents' wallets of a lot of legislators with big, big cost increases on two projects that mainly favor Baltimore -- the downtown stadium and the light rail project. Score one point here for the legislature.

The score is evened, however, by the governor's continued efforts, even in a tough economy, to raise the right issues facing the state. That's especially true as far as the business community is concerned, for the Schaefer agenda is largely a program that translates into more and better jobs down the road.

Even the 2020 Commission's call for controlled growth is, if viewed intelligently, not a call for restraint but a vehicle for enabling the state to grow while largely retaining the quality-of-life edge that may be its strongest drawing card for economic development.

The Governor and his Band see this, and have articulated it with some clarity.

It is perhaps difficult for so many individual legislators to ever march in such unison, but, allowing for this difference, it's difficult to see much constructive unity of thought in the legislature's agenda. Score a point for Don and the Band.

All too often, a tie score in a political event translates into a loss for voters, and that's the way I read the 1991 General Assembly to date.

Somehow, these opposing forces must sit down and collectively shape an agenda for Maryland's future. Every intelligent

business and academic person I know would instantly offer up a conference room for such a meeting.

Secondly, the folks who are supposed to run state government must seriously question the fundamental nature of the institutions they oversee.

During this severe but, I hope, short downturn, any number of private companies have significantly changed the way they do business. Weaker companies in weaker industries have gone out of business, continuing to illustrate the cruel but arguably cleansing legacy of the private sector's business cycle.

In government, however, we have not seen much cleansing effect of hard times at the state level. We have started to see some such impact in Baltimore, but the city has had to slide so far before considering significant change that its story simply strengthens the general argument.

I don't have anything against government employees, most of whom work hard. But lacking the discipline provided by the marketplace, government programs tend not to have the incentives to become better and more efficient.

Governor Schaefer is a smart guy and had to know he couldn't get his new initiatives considered if the state bureaucracy was allowed to practice business as usual. The governor threatened to mount a challenge to business as usual when he said much of the budget shortfall might have to be handled by layoffs and, later, when he said state employees would face longer work weeks without larger paychecks to show for the added time.

He actually seemed to have energized (or was that terrorized?) the state bureaucracy into considering some substantive changes, but he failed to follow up this advantage and, inexplicably, muffed an unusual opportunity.

Even when the private economy recovers, Maryland -- wealthy as it is -- will not be able to afford business as usual and the programs the governor wants. The legislature must do more than respond to this reality by saying "no" to the new programs, or Maryland's long-term prosperity will suffer.

It's unclear whether voters can hold legislators to a higher standard or whether they would even want to try.

But business and professional leaders can, and should, do so.

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