In the checkered marble hallways of state buildings here, where words, facts, rumors and gossip are among the most important currenncies, Gov. Harry Hughes long ago earned the reputation of a skinflint.
His silences have been a persistent source of frustration for legislators and government bureaucrats, since almost everybody here wants to know what the governor wants before they decide what to do.
"I think you have to be able to interpret body language to be able to understand what message you're getting from the governor," said State Sen. Arthur H. Helton, who recently was ostracized and ridiculed by his colleagues for seeking to replace Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams -- something he though Hughes wanted him to do.
Despite his laconic reputation, Hughes finds ways to send messages to influence political events. He does this by talking about some things directly, by saying nothing about others, and sometimes by dropping enough hints so his advisers say what he wants to hear. It is an imprecise method of exerting power, and it does not always work.
Consider the case of the Transportation Subcommittee, a collection of seven legislators, a banker, a lawyer, a former member of Congress, a former County Council member and the lieutenant governor, which was supposed to recommend solutions for one of the most intractable problems facing state government: paying for mass transit in Maryland
Last summer, Edward J. Mason, the bespectacled Republican senator from Cumberland, ventured up to the governor's second-floor State House office several times to discuss where the state should get an extra $30 million or more for the Baltimore subway and the Maryland portions of the Washington Metro.
At the time, the senator found himself in an implausible position, he was the leader of the legislature's minority party, he came from the western hill country where transportation means roads and railroads, and he was chairing an advisory committee whose main focus was on urban mass transit. He wanted help.
Hughes was not loathe to give it. While the governor said little about how transportation aid should be distributed, he did have something to say about where it should come from. Several times, he reiterated his opposition to the idea of taking some of the state's general revenues -- money from the 5 percent sales tax or the income tax -- and using it for transportation needs.
"He didn't want us going into the income tax and the sales tax," Mason recalled last week. "So I went back and kind of advised the committee that that was the thinking of the administration.
"I told them, 'Why get into a battle over that -- let's look at other sources" of revenue, Mason said. "With that philosophy on the governor's part, we had to look for other sources . . We didn't want to meet every week all summer long, do all that work, and have it be for nothing."
On Dec. 12, the subcommittee produced its report, 320 pages of options recommendations, charts, graphs, and prepared testimony, covering not only mass transit but highways, railroads, airports and the port of Baltimore. Its key recommendation: get new mass transit aid by putting new taxes on the sale of automobiles and gasoline.
Nowhere does the report indicate any serious consideration of the option of using the statewide sales or income taxes for mass transit.
The bulk of the work was done; the options Hughes opposed had not been considered. It remained only for the full task force to approve the subcommittee report.
That vote was to come at the committee's final meeting Friday, Jan. 11. At a press conference two days earlier, Hughes patiently avoided all questions about the transit funding issue, saying, "I am still waiting for the committee. As soon as they come back I will make up my mind what position we will take . . ."
However, facts that would affect the governor's decision were already trickling in from other sources and Hughes' adamant opposition to touching any of the sales tax revenues was weakening.
For one thing, in the course of three meetings that week with Thomas W. Schmidt, secretarry of the state's Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning, Hughes learned that the state's 1980 revenue surplus, already estimated at an embarrassingly high $230 million, would probably go much higher.
For another, at a Thursday meeting with Schmidt, a variety of transportationn aides, subcommittee members and other legislators, Hughes was told by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin that there were not enough votes in the General Assembly to pass any tax increase when the state had such surplus.
Hughes then replied that he would now consider setting aside one-quarter of 1 percent of the state sales tax for transportation needs, a concession the legislators found surprising and welcome -- and one that made the subcommittee's yellow-covered report largely irrelevant, even though it had followed the direction Hughes originally wanted.
"We all were overtaken by events," explained one task force member.
To extricate themselves and Hughes gracefully from the now unwanted recommendations, Chairman Alfred Scanlan, Cardin, and committee staff members retired Thursday afternoon to draft an "addendum" to the subcommittee report, which was cleared by Hughes Thursday night and approved by the full committee the next day.
Amid much soothing verbiage, the addendum said that, nothwithstanding the subcommittee recommendations on transportation financing, ". . . there are other alternatives that should be considered . . ." thus completely diluting any impact the recommendations might have had.
Asked about his role in the whole process of subcommittee deliberations, Hughes said late last week that "I certainly wasn't dictating" what his advisory committee should say, and "I don't think I was guiding" the group.
"They recommended a lot of things," he added. "It was only this one of the many where I expressed my feelings."
And, Hughes pointed out, he never interfered with the deliberations of another subcommittee of the Scanlan Task Force, one that considered the equally ticklish question of increasing state aid to education and deciding how much state money should be spent and which subdivisions should get the biggest share.
After months of deliberations, this group -- which was headed by Montgomery County Democratic Del. Lucille Maurer, one of the leading state experts on education funding and which included Cardin, a tax expert and one of the most powerful figures in the legislature -- recommended that state aid to educaiton increase by $60 million in 1981.
When Highes met with most of the Scanlan Task Force Friday morning, he listened to Maurer's and Cardin's arguments for the full $60 million increase -- more than $18 million more than he had put in his budget.
When the pair were done, Hughes indicated his agreement with one of their basic principles: freeing local subdivisions of the fear that state funding would remain so tied to school enrollments that it would inevitably decline.
But he had little to say about the size of the proposed increase in aid, except to mention that, on top of what was already going to schools the extra proposed aid represented "a considerable sum."
When Hughes submitted his proposed budget last Tuesday, only $41 million in new aid for education was included. When he gave his state of the state speech Wednesday, he threw in the $18 million more the subcommittee had wanted.
After maintaining his silence during their deliberations, and listening to their arguments, he had sent them a direct message in the most public of possible forums: with the entire legislature and most political officials in Maryland listening.
The message he had sent to Rosalie Abrams, Art helton, and Secretary of State Fred Wineland in the preceding weeks had not been nearly as clear. And no matter what the governor did or did not mean to say, the messages those three heard were alternately enticing, irritating and infuriating.
According to one observer familiar with the events, the misunderstandings began last summer, when Ejner J. Johnson, then the state secretary of licensing and regulation, met with Sen. Helton to discuss a variety of issues, including the Democratic leadership of the Senate.
Johnson, who in October became Hughes' staff director, has refused to discuss the substance of any of his conversations with Helton or any other legislator, but other sources said that Johnson suggested to Helton that he fit well into the role of majority leader -- a job whose traditional function has been to serve as a liaison with the governor's office.
The idea fell on fertile ground. Prickly and contentious, hardworking but unpopular, Helton had long felt underappreciated in the Senate -- all the more so last year when he failed to win a committee chairmanship and lost his seat on the important Budget and Taxation Committee.
In a series of meetings and phone calls with other administration aides over the next months, Helton continued to discuss this possibility and found no discouragement. So he asked for and received two meetings with the governor at which the discussions continued inconclusively.
No one in the administration, however, had a clear idea if Abrams wanted to step down from her post, although there were worries that her many responsibilities -- she also serves as chairman of the state Democratic Party -- had eroded her health.
And there were concerns that, since she chaired no committee in the Senate, she lacked the necessary power to be an effective majority leader, according to legislative and administrative sources.
Abrams, however, said the first she knew of these concerns was two weeks ago, the Sunday before the legislative session began, when Johnson called and asked if she would be interested in taking over the secretary of state's job from Fred Wineland.
"What did I think when I got that call?" an irritated Abrams recalled last week. "I thought the governor wanted me out of the majority leadership. It was Ejner Johnson calling and he works for the governor."
What did Helton think, on the basis of his conversations with the governor, Johnson, and other aides? He thought the governor wanted Abrams out and him in.
What did Fred Wineland think? Wineland, who like Hughes has three years of a four-year term left to serve, said when he heard from the governor recently, the only message he received was praise for his work. No one, he said, had hinted that he leave his post.
"We screwed that one up," one administration official acknowledged privately last week, as rumors about an administration "plot" to unseat Abrams spun like tumbleweeds through the ranks of the senators and delegates.
"There was never any attempt on my part or my staff's part to unseat Rosalie Abrams," a tired-sounding Hughes said Friday. "Golly, I appointed her chairman of the party . . .
"It was a misunderstanding," he added. " . . . I suppose this kind of thing is never going to be prevented. You can try to minimize it and reduce it, but it can never be prevented."