The knight in state's budget game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you imagine the battle over the Maryland budget as a game of chess, you'd have seen a knight charge this town last week, his sword aimed low.

Since Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unveiled his budget, surprising everybody by adding new programs rather than making deep cuts, I have been wondering who would do the dirty work.

In case you forgot, the budget in Maryland has to be balanced. The governor is king. He suggests how to spend and the General Assembly can only cut. And if nobody here raises taxes this session, or comes up with another revenue source (slot machines?) for education, somebody has to cut the budget.

Well, I met a guy willing to suggest scaling back.

His name is Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, and for a bad guy, he is extraordinarily nice.

In ordinary life, he's the biggest cabbage farmer north of Georgia. Every year after the General Assembly ends he sends 33 million heads to northern states and Canada for sauerkraut. His brother-in-law is preparing his 500-acre Somerset County farm now for the spring crop. Stoltzfus is the sales end of the operation in winter. The other day I was in his Senate office when he examined a newly faxed order, and grinned.

There was another document on his desk, too. It was a trove of old quotes from prominent Democrats saying it would be irresponsible to pass a $1.3 billion education plan known as Thornton without knowing how it would be paid for. There still is no money for the three-year-old law, and Stoltzfus, the leading Republican in the Maryland Senate, is about to make the Democrats eat their words.

He had spent the morning with the governor's staff, and I wondered whether this ammunition came from them. It did.

"What can I say?" Stoltzfus answered.

As a fall guy, Stoltzfus is perfect. He voted against the education plan three years ago because there was no money for it. And, he is so nice even the most liberal members of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly count him as a friend; one, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, attended his son's wedding.

Some lobbyists would rather make their case with this 54-year-old former choir director over the more powerful Democrats on his budget committee because, as one put it, he seems interested in what they say.

He isn't too busy, either, to comfort a lobbyist writhing in pain after a fall, according to the man, David Starnes of Outward Bound, who hobbled into a hearing room to thank him.

Stoltzfus, a Mennonite, is not one to beat the drum for his beliefs. "I really live it," he says. He is conservative - anti-abortion, anti-tax - yet, as he points out, people think he is moderate because of his style. Among 14 sometimes-strident Republicans, he is a voice of reason.

Now, he has emerged as a knight ready to uphold the governor's promise to fully fund Thornton.

He might have been knocked off his horse, too, had he ventured into Lawyers Mall last week where thousands of teachers rallied for "full funding" of education. Instead, he took an underground passage to the Senate. From a fourth-floor committee room, you could still hear the chanting.

Was it directed at him? That day, he proposed a bill that slows annual payment on Thornton. He calls it a delay, not a cut. I wondered: If part of my salary was delayed a year, would it be worth the same?

It's the only way out for Stoltzfus, who, as minority leader, finds himself in an uncomfortable position.

His governor, who refuses to raise taxes, wants to pay for the education law by introducing slot machines in Maryland.

Stoltzfus opposes slots on moral grounds. Lest we get carried away: He is not a complete paragon, although hearing his baritone Hallelujah! during the Battle Hymn of the Republic - he sang the Senate's opening prayer last week - sounded like a direct line to God. He's traveled, hung at nightclubs in his 20s and, shhh, he sometimes has a glass of wine with dinner.

Last week he vented his frustration on schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who came to the Senate Budget and Tax Committee to ask that it "fully fund" small education programs at museums and $3 million in books for private schools.

Wouldn't she prefer to slow down Thornton over cuts to these programs?

No, she answered, she wants them both.

"Well and good," Stoltzfus said, "But the reality is we have other human needs" such as mental health. "What do we fund? We are under tremendous pressure ... then you come in and advocate for this."

Some of this was posturing. Outside the hearing room, the senator, who ran a private school that his four children attended, told these groups - including two museums in his district - their programs were safe in his committee, though he couldn't say what might happen on the Senate floor.

Back in his office, Stoltzfus looked over local bond bills and hunting bills.

Years ago, before he started his business, he taught at Pocomoke High School. His wife is still a public school teacher, and he knows what a tough job it is. Money is not the only answer, he says, "though as lawmakers, it's the only option."

Suddenly a visitor arrived. Stoltzfus looked at the man twice before giving a happy shout; he hadn't seen his college roommate in 30 years.

Then, Stoltzfus headed down West Street to a strategy session at Republican headquarters, and I walked the other way to Chick & Ruth's Delly. There was Stoltzfus' college roommate, Pete Westernburger, eating corned beef on rye. A math teacher, he was on his way to the education rally at the Statehouse when he stopped to make dinner plans with Stoltzfus.

"I don't envy him," Westernburger said. "It's going to be difficult to balance this budget."

If money for Thornton is delayed, he added, the standards the state sets for its kids will have to be delayed, too.

Stoltzfus knows he is tilting at windmills. He couldn't get a single Democrat to co-sponsor his bill, and last week the House of Delegates renewed its vow to fully fund Thornton. If the Senate follows suit, the governor will be forced to move.

Who knows how this game will end? Will a different knight take the lead? The one with the slots banner? If not, will the king sacrifice counties and colleges? Time runs until a certain Monday in April. I plan to keep my eye on the knights.

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