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Schmoke's political opportunity


This year's budget season produced one of the most fascinating political battles of the five-year-old Schmoke mayoralty. It ended with the mayor getting mad, vetoing the budget and succeeding in persuading the City Council to go his way. With no fewer than nine of the 18 council members recanting their previous vote, the big political loser was City Council President Mary Pat Clarke who had engineered a rebellion against Kurt L. Schmoke's budget priorities and was abandoned by her troops.

It's too soon to say whether this wholesale desertion by Clarke loyalists signals a lasting change in the council's relationship with its president. But it has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that a number of council members have grown tired of Ms. Clarke's erratic behavior and capricious chairmanship. When Mayor Schmoke exercised strong leadership by rejecting the spending plan in the first executive budget veto in more than 90 years, it was easy for him to persuade disillusioned council members to give him their support.

This new political situation offers a unique opportunity for Mr. Schmoke to begin exercising the awesome clout that the city charter gives to a Baltimore mayor. As the budget outcome showed, many council members are ready for a realignment of loyalties. All they want from the mayor is consistency and predictable support so that they will not find themselves suddenly out on a limb.

In the past, council members have repeatedly found Mr. Schmoke lacking in political reliability. Too often the mayor has proposed a supposedly important legislative initiative without wanting to fight for it. No council member wants to be embarrassed and left in the lurch. They want to be assured of mayoral support if they take political risks.

The mayor will have splendid opportunities in the future to rally the council and reassert his stronger leadership posture by seeing to it that the city begins an immediate and systematic search for ways to lower its astronomical property tax rate.

In the past fortnight's battle of wills, Ms. Clarke wanted to execute a 5-cent cut on the tax rate of $5.90 per $100 of assessed value. The mayor, wanting to hire 60 more police officers and beef up law enforcement, thought such a cosmetic cut ill-advised. He did the right thing.

In the long-term, something substantive has to be done about the city's property tax rate. That rate -- and obscenely high automobile insurance charges -- are killing the city. Now that they have found one another, Mayor Schmoke and the council should not waste any time in coming up with a plan to lower the property tax rate.

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