It's time for Gov. Harry Hughes to come clean about the Maryland savings and loan scandal.
How bad is it really, Governor?
When are we going to get out of this mess?
What are you and the legislature going to do about it?
How much is it going to cost the taxpayers?
Are there any more time bombs ticking out there? Any more EPIC land mines waiting to blow up in depositors' faces? Any more situations like the one at First Maryland Savings & Loan that are capable of deteriorating from business-as-usual to bolt-the-doors in 24 hours' time?
None of these questions were nagging us on Memorial Day. The crisis seemed to be under control then, the depositors protected by the full faith and credit of the state of Maryland, thanks to prompt action in Annapolis.
But this is Labor Day and it's been a long, hot summer for the savers whose money is locked up in associations that were supposed to be safe.
It was bad enough for those people when the state slapped its "temporary" $1,000-a-month limit on withdrawals from state-insured institutions. But today, thousands of Marylanders can't get a dime out of their accounts because the state's lifeline to depositors is unraveling. (You can bet that the governor and the members of the General Assembly are not among those families struggling to pay their bills with a frozen bank account.)
As a result of the governor's emergency order freezing withdrawals, four Maryland savings and loans are, for all practical purposes, out of business. Neither the governor nor anybody else in Annapolis said anything about the possibility of a freeze when they announced the state bailout plan three months ago.
But the bailout put together so hurriedly by the governor and the General Assembly was not so much a plan as a promise -- a promise that all accounts would be insured up to $100,000.
That promise is not being kept -- no matter how disingenuously you interpret it. Insurance does not mean locking up your money for safekeeping; it means your money is there when you need it.
The promise was made to restore depositor confidence and it did that -- for a while. People accepted the $1,000 limit on withdrawals because they trusted the state. That trust is now being strained as the temporary limit stretches into its third month and evidence grows that the state cannot deliver.
The state's inability to keep its promise is not a matter of bad faith, but of bad information. It has become obvious as the S&L crisis swelters on that no one in Annapolis knew what they were promising.
They could not have known that Equity Programs Investment Corp. -- a billion-dollar real estate investment syndicate with headquarters in Virginia -- was going to turn into the EPIC mess. They probably didn't even know that EPIC was an affiliate of Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda. They had no clue that EPIC might cause a potential $65 million loss for Community and, ultimately, Maryland taxpayers.
They could not have calculated the probable cost of bailing out Old Court and Merritt, even though everyone in the Maryland financial community knew the two Baltimore thrifts were basket cases long before the crisis began. First Maryland Savings & Loan? Nobody knew how bad that was, either.
We know now. We know that deposits in all four are frozen and are not likely to thaw unless someone cooks up a rescue plan. We know the state is going to have to pick up the check for that rescue; the only question is how much it will cost.
The taxpayers of Maryland need to know how big that bill is going to be, and we need to know, too, what else is hiding under the rocks. The First Maryland and Community crises only have been exposed within the last two weeks. There is no reason to believe that is the end of the surprises.
As more and more of the healthy Maryland S&Ls qualify for federal deposit insurance, attention will focus on the ones left out in the cold. Depositors are going to start asking why their bank hasn't gotten insurance yet. If they don't get answers -- or don't trust the answers they hear -- they are likely to do the prudent thing and withdraw their money as fast as they can.
That probably is happening already; we don't know how far deposits of Maryland S&Ls have dwindled. The $1,000-a-month limit only worsens the problem: It becomes a floor rather than a ceiling because depositors fear that if they don't take out as much as they can today, they may not be able to take out any at all tomorrow.
Ironically, as the situation gets better, it also gets worse. The signs on the doors that say "Your Savings Insured by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp" become conspicuous by their absence. The associations that qualify for federal insurance drain deposits away from those still under the state umbrella. As the strong get stronger, the weak weaken.
That's why it is so important for the governor and the General Assembly to act now to restore depositors' confidence. No quickie session of the legislature or proclamation by the governor can end the savings and loan crisis tomorrow, but a full and frank discussion of just what we're up against would be a good first step.
Maryland leaders no longer can pretend the worst of the problem is behind them. It is not simply a matter of time until all the state's S&L's get federal insurance. Time is running out.