State leaders lock horns over helicopter issue


ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's governor and lieutenant governor are tussling again over the state's fleet of medevac helicopters -- specifically, this time, over who gets to approve non-emergency use of the aircraft.

On July 2, the Maryland Executive Helicopter Advisory Committee, a panel headed by Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, adopted new rules on the use of state helicopters and planes, giving the committee the job of approving their non-emergency use.

That did not please Gov. William Donald Schaefer, whose office traditionally approved such trips. On July 3, he ordered the new rules suspended.

Some observers say that the governor was annoyed to learn that if he ever wanted to fly in a helicopter, he'd have to clear the request through the lieutenant governor.

"The governor got uptight," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, who has in the past tweaked Mr. Schaefer for his very personal approach to government. "It's his helicopter. It's his light rail. It's his stadium."

Mr. Steinberg said that he had no intention of delaying a state official's trip if a helicopter was available. "You mean to tell me, if the governor says, 'I've got an emergency in Cumberland and I need a helicopter,' I'm going to say, 'Well, give me all the details and I'll get back to you?' Of course he can use it."

But Raymond Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said that Mr. Schaefer saw no need to change the system and feared the new approval process would "needlessly add another level of bureaucracy. I know the governor had some concern about response time."

Mr. Steinberg said that Governor Schaefer has never discussed his complaints with him. He said that the committee only drew up the rules because the legislature wrote into the state budget an order that the panel devise new guidelines for the use of


Both the governor's office and the lieutenant governor's staff agree that officials only make a few helicopter trips each year that do not directly involve medical emergencies, law enforcement or searches and rescues.

"There are no abuses," Mr. Steinberg said. The new rules, he said, are meant "to dispel any inference of impropriety in the future."

"This all falls within the category of much ado about nothing and fights that can be avoided," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, who is a member of the helicopter advisory committee.

Since the spring, Mr. Schaefer has used helicopter issues to fuel a tiff with Mr. Steinberg and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent. First, the governor criticized the location of the helicopters, complaining that the Upper Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland needed better service. Earlier this month, the helicopter panel recommended spending $10 million to buy two more aircraft to cover those areas. That resolved, the governor has moved his criticism to the issue of non-emergency flights.

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