For a week now, crisis signals have radiated from the office of Maryland's quiet governor, Harry Hughes.
First there was an uneasy silence as Hughes shut himself in his office with his closest aides. Then yesterday, there was the press conference he canceled and the public board meeting he skipped. At last today, the practiced detachment of the governor's administration was scrapped. Modest Harry Hughes summoned a full Senate fiscal committee to his side.
The senators found Hughes behind a desk covered with charts of the state's shrinking revenues, and studies of the embattled state budget that has suddenly brought his tranquil administration its most severe test. His jacket was off, his sleeves rolled up and his face lined with exhaustion. The governor, the senators said, was clearly in a jam.
After two years of governing by consensus, Harry Hughes had found himself suddenly faced with political choices that can only bring him controversy and criticism regardless of what he decides. On one hand are the state's 65,000 employes and their demands for a pay increase this year; on the other are the politically expensive tax increases that probably are needed to fund the raise.
Meanwhile, the budget Hughes spent three months crafting last fall is imperiled by a feud between delegates who would like to slash state programs and senators who might be willing to save them if not for their feeling that the House is goading them into a big-spending posture.
Time is running out. The session ends in 24 days, and legislative leaders have begun to send Hughes warnings that he must act soon if he is to propose a pay raise and tax package. "He's dangerously close to not making that decision," said one legislative leader. "Every day makes it more difficult."
And even as Hughes works, some of his supporters are saying that the budget is the one issue he has claimed as his own, and that this is thus a crisis that, however it turns out, Hughes brought upon himself.
In keeping with his style, Hughes left the legislature's budget committees and subcommittees mostly to themselves as they scruntinized -- his budget. He seemed to some legislative leaders to downplay fiscal talk during some of his meetings with them, and when the House voted last week to slash $54 million from the budget, he protested but did little more.
It was only when the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted this week to accept the House budget without restoring any programs that Hughes changed his approach. The senators who came to Hughes' office said he spent 90 minutes informally, but firmly, imploring them to reconsider the move.
The approach apparently helped. An hour after filing out of Hughes' office, the committe voted unanimously to go back to work on the budget before sending it to the Senate floor, although the members claimed that they would have done so with or without Hughes' impetus.
Still, the matter is far from resolved, and some legislative leaders say that Hughes may have waited too long to plunge into the tangle of fiscal issues now before them. The Senate budget committee, ignoring Hughes' objections, has decided to put aside the House budget and put together its own version. This would require the House to reopen budget hearings, possibly exacerbating the program-cutting feud.
But more important, the budget controversy is simply a distraction from Hughes' dilemma of how to handle the pay raise issue, which has been a central issue since late last fall and reached a critical point last week when Hughes learned from his fiscal analysts that state tax revenues are even more depressed than he had expected.
To finance the raise, Hughes now probably will have to support a fiscal maneuver that will bring some $40 million to be strapped general fund. A proposed gasoline tax, now before the Senate, would serve that purpose. But Hughes also is worried that state revenues will continue to drop, and that he will not be able to finance the higher salaries next year -- the year of Maryland's state elections -- without a second tax measure.
The senators who conferred with Hughes today came away with the impression that he still hopes to pull off the $40 million fiscal maneuver. At the same time, he seemed to have all but ruled out the possibility of an employes' pay raise this year, they said.
That possible resolution, in itself, illustrates the no-win nature of Hughes' options. State employes already were demonstrating here today to step up their push for a pay raise. Their clamor or can only increase if Hughes and the legislature raise revenue without using it to increase their salaries.
Yet Hughes and legislative leaders know that politicians who are already reluctant to accept even a small tax increase on gasoline this year are unlikely to yield next year, if the question is deferred until then.
That quest will put Hughes' mild-mannered style to its most difficult test in the closing weeks of the session, as he seeks to defuse serious conflicts between the two houses and to unite them behind whatever measures he decides to support.