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The Odd Couple visits The Twilight Zone


WHAT'S GOING on with Kurt Schmoke and Parris Glendening? If this were vaudeville, they'd be a good comedy duo. But governance isn't entertainment -- or is it?

Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor are putting on their version of "The Odd Couple." They meet and then they bicker -- over slot machines and city schools. House Speaker Casper Taylor said, "Legislators feel like we're living in some 'Twilight Zone,'. . . You couldn't write a Hollywood script like this."

Indeed you couldn't. Nor would you want to. The mayor seeks to have it both ways: Hundreds of millions of education dollars for his schools but without meaningful state mandates or state control. He preaches cooperation and compromise until the details displease his advisers in Baltimore. Then he disavows the plans he agreed to earlier.

What the governor really wants is anyone's guess. Clearly, he is anxious to please Mayor Schmoke, who delivered critical votes in the last election. He apparently told the mayor he'd legalize slot machines and then toss at least $25 million a year to Baltimore -- on top of $200 million in education aid. Then he denied it all. His repudiation of what happened at the meeting with the mayor was masterfully evasive.

He and the mayor had a "significant misunderstanding," that's all. Sure, legalizing slot machines was discussed, the governor said, and so was more aid for Baltimore City schools. But these two issues are not related, the governor said. There is no linkage.

Huh? The meeting was called solely to negotiate a deal on city schools. How did slot-machine revenue intrude if it wasn't tied directly to that package?

Did the governor interrupt negotiations to say, "By the way, Kurt, I've decided to try to legalize slots. But, hey, that's another afternoon's tale. Let's get back to our school talk!"

The slots-education linkage hasn't a snowball's chance in the General Assembly. In fact, hopes for any gambling expansion next year are fading fast. Public reaction has been so strongly negative that politicians don't want to pull the slots handle.

Besides, for the governor to throw his philosophical opposition to slots out the window just because race tracks say they can't survive without slots is politically perilous. He'd look so superficial.

The mayor and governor erred by excluding legislators from negotiations. By cutting lawmakers out of this game, the two men ensured the game couldn't be won.

That became obvious at a legislative hearing last week. Senators and delegates were furious over the Schmoke and Glendening performances. Some powerful Democrats even want to call a special session to force school reforms on the mayor. Failing that, they aim to rush through legislation in early January to mandate education changes in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schmoke appears to think there is political gain in defying the state. He talks of settling the matter in court, where the city is suing the state for more education money. But his chances of winning that suit don't look promising. The last time the city sued the state this way, it lost.

Mr. Schmoke says more money will turn the schools around. But an audit now under way is likely to show the city squandered some $50 million in state aid. That points to a different reason for the city's school woes -- gross mismanagement.

There's plenty of evidence that points to a bankrupt school system. There's also lots of evidence of inept administration. One outcome could be that the judge looks at the city school mess and orders a state management takeover.

That would be a crushing blow to Mr. Schmoke and a ringing indictment of his leadership. It could happen, though. The mayor needs a negotiated settlement.

Even if the court rules in the mayor's favor, he loses. Anti-Baltimore sentiment in Annapolis would reach a crescendo. Punitive acts against the city would be severe and long-lasting. It would be a pyrrhic victory for the mayor.

So the pressure is building on Mr. Schmoke to find a way out of this conundrum. He can't count on relief from the courts and certainly not from the legislature. The mayor is running out of friends. Like it or not, he needs his "Odd Couple" partner.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page director of The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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