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Guilt by association


IN the nooks and crannies of the State House there's talk once again of calling a special session of the General Assembly to deal with Maryland's $250 million budget deficit.

The mere mention of hauling legislators back to Annapolis late in September or early October, as the morning line has it, is causing a mild case of the heebie-jeebies among supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton.

Now what does Maryland's financial black hole have to do with presidential politics? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot.

For when it comes to budget deficits, where you stand depends on where you sit. For back-bench Republicans, a special session would be a chance to poison the atmosphere just before the November election by stirring up anti-tax, anti-government sentiments as well as jouncing Democrats as big-spending liberals. (The same thing may happen nationally if, as some expect, President Bush in his acceptance speech tonight calls for a special session of Congress.)

For Democrats, it's an opportunity to picture Republicans as champions of the upperdogs. The predictable political twitch would be to blame Maryland's economic blahs on 12 years of Republican rule and the GOP's punishing policies toward the states, not to mention the junk-bond years of Ronald Reagan NTC which piled up a $333 billion deficit. To be sure, talking-head Republicans will counter by indicting the Democratic-controlled Congress. And on, and on, and on.

Not to worry; there's enough blame to go around. Special session or not, the next round of cuts is scheduled for later this fall. And looking down the calendar, the state's bean-counters foresee a terrible fiscal 1994, even worse than 1993.

To deal with the $250 million deficit, there's talk of freezing Current People Services (CPS), William Donald Schaeferese for those warm and fuzzy, touchy-feely programs that he likes so much. Moreover, a tag-team of budget experts has been microscoping the 1994 budget for programs to cut. And once the decisions are made, the governor might back those cuts right into the current operating budget.

And here's the catch (there always is): Mr. Schaefer has the executive authority to cut department and agency budgets by up to 25 percent. To go beyond that, the governor needs the approval of the legislature. So really, Mr. Schaefer may have no choice but to summon the assembly for a fall meeting.

Everyone knows that calling the General Assembly into special session is chancy at best. This season, though, is riskier than usual, with presidential politics in the air and Republicans looking for a handle to rescue the beaten and bedraggled Bush administration.

Republicans in the House of Delegates proved during the recent session that what they lack in numbers, they more than make up in determination and headlines. They out-flanked, out-foxed and out-talked the top-heavy Democrats. Right or wrong, they won the public relations duel on the tax-and-spend issue.

Come now the House Democrats, late to the game, embarrassed by the Republican success and willing to put their money where their mouths should have been. They're forming the House Democratic Research Group. Its mission, according to recruiting documents mailed to House Democrats, will be:

"To provide Democratic members of the House of Delegates, the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic leadership of the House of Delegates with research, information and public relations/media services on legislative issues confronting the Maryland General Assembly."

In neither case is there the prospect of raising the level of debate but only the promise of making more noise. And that's what has Mr. Clinton's backers antsy.

Republicans have more to gain from a special session than Democrats. After all, Democrats have run Maryland since the Big Bang, so more of the cow pie flying through the air will stick on them.

What's more, Mr. Schaefer has demonstrated in that stern Dutch-uncle attitude of his that he's no do-or-die fan of Bill Clinton, Democrat or not.

And as far as Mr. Schaefer's concerned, calling a special session could be get-even time for Mr. Clinton's arms-length posture during primary season.

Democrats have every right to be optimistic about the election, and they have everything to fear about a special session -- of either Congress or the General Assembly. It'll be one more chance for Republicans to blame the Democrats for the largest tax increase in Maryland history.

And for Bill Clinton, the unintended consequence of a special session -- in Washington or Annapolis -- could be sharing the guilt by association for something he had nothing to do with.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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