In case there was any question, the events of recent weeks have erased any doubts about Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's commitment to becoming Maryland's next governor.
He said he wants to do it. He set up a committee to explore how he can do it. And, sensing the need to distance himself from outrage over the county's lucrative pension system, he decided not to transfer his 12 years of state service to the county -- a decision that protects his political reputation as a fiscal watchdog, but at considerable personal cost.
Mr. Neall's intention until now was to purchase his state service at a cost of $30,000, payable to the county's Appointed and Elected Pension Plan. He would have recouped that money many times over. Because the pension plan allows officials to collect after 16 years of government service, he could have begun receiving the pension next year at age 46.
As it is, assuming he leaves county government in 1994, Mr. Neall will not be eligible for any retirement benefits.
He says his motives are not purely political. Though the amounts of money involved in the controversy are not that huge, he knows the pension benefits are too generous. "My reputation is worth more than a pension," he says, whether or not he's running for higher office.
Nonetheless, sacrificing the pension was, politically, an astute move for Mr. Neall. It doesn't matter that he's legally entitled to it. After urging pension reform through his own legislation and support of a council bill, taking advantage of the pension plan himself would have appeared hypocritical to voters -- and he knows it.
Mr. Neall's chances of winning the gubernatorial election just got a little tougher with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision not to run. Mr. Schmoke's city background and questionable managerial skills would have been a perfect foil for him and his appeal to suburban voters. Now, his Democratic opponent may be Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg or Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening; his contrasts with either are less marked.
If he wants to win, Mr. Neall needs his reputation as one who can be trusted with taxpayers' money. Giving up his pension means he not only still has it, but that it's a little stronger than it was before.