Eleven days ago, the Maryland General Assembly's chief fiscal aide stood in the well of the state Senate, patiently explaining his analysis of the state's potential financial liability in the savings and loan crisis.
From the middle of the chamber came a question from state Sen. Walter M. Baker, a conservative Democrat from Cecil County: What was the basis for the estimated loan losses at the Old Court Savings & Loan Association?
The figures were provided by the team of experts that has run Old Court since the summer, replied William S. Ratchford II, veteran director of the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services.
"Well, Mr. Ratchford, I don't care what they say," Baker countered. "I want to know what you think."
Baker's statement said volumes about the stature accorded Ratchford by Maryland's 188 legislators. A bespectacled 53-year-old with a Howdy Doody-like appearance and a wry sense of humor, Ratchford is a fiscal wizard who in the past 12 years has had an impact on the work of the General Assembly that some legislators say is second only to that of the House speaker and the Senate president.
Operating largely outside the public view, and purposely shunning the limelight, Ratchford has bureaucratic tentacles that extend to nearly every corner of the legislature, including the print shop and the telephone system.
His 50 employes staff the budget and taxation committees that determine how the state's wealth is collected and distributed among Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore.
His office compiles the fiscal notes that project the cost of legislation and often determine whether a bill will survive or die. His analyses of the governor's budget shape the legislature's response to the basic document of state government. And his close relationship with the legislative leadership -- too close, some say -- gives him a powerful perch from which to observe and effect public policy.
"He's our equalizer," said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), a master legislator who readily admits that Ratchford is often the man whose private counsel makes the speaker "look brilliant" in public.
"He's equal to having 13 cabinet secretaries," Cardin added. "He's like an encyclopedia. He's the perfect staff person."
In December 1978, when then Gov.-elect Harry Hughes was holding meetings in downtown Baltimore to shape his administration's initial legislative program, one of the people he invited to attend was Ratchford.
In 1984, when Hughes proposed an ill-fated income tax surcharge to the General Assembly to fund his Chesapeake Bay cleanup program and other legislative initiatives -- and had it abruptly tossed back in his face by the legislature -- it was Ratchford who came up with the assembly's alternatives.
And this year, when the legislature was wrestling with Hughes' plan to pay back depositors of the defunct Old Court Savings & Loan over four years, the considerable legislative distaste for Hughes' proposal dissipated immediately when Ratchford presented his own financial analysis that confirmed the governor's figures.
A native of Baltimore, Ratchford inherited his fascination with the Maryland legislature from his father, who served as superintendent of the Maryland Workshop for the Blind, a quasi-state agency. As a boy of 16, Ratchford would drive his father to Annapolis for meetings on his agency's budget and spend the day in the House and Senate galleries as his father lobbied the lawmakers.
He was in the gallery when the legislature enacted the state's first sales tax in 1947, and he quickly learned the connection between fiscal affairs and politics. Imposition of the 2-cent sales tax was a major factor in the 1950 defeat of Gov. William Preston Lane by Republican Theodore R. McKeldin. Lane was vilified for the sales tax, which was dubbed "Pennies for Lane," and he was bombarded with tossed pennies when he appeared in public.
Ratchford later earned a master's degree in government from the University of Maryland, dropping his plans for a doctorate when he decided to work full time as the executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. Six years later, he joined the Department of Fiscal Services.
"In the department, Ratchford sees every piece of paper . . . every bill, every fiscal note, every budget analysis," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), one of three appropriations subcommittee chairmen in the House who rely heavily on Ratchford and his staff in reviewing the governor's budget.
Ratchford, Maloney said, "recognizes that if you control the flow of information, the flow of paper, dollars and numbers, that's where the real power is. It's not in getting bills passed."
Part of Ratchford's power stems from the fact that he uses it judiciously. He stays within the bounds of his role, which he describes as "seeing that the legislators have the information they need, presented in such a format that they can make the best policy judgment."
Ratchford, said House Ways and Means Committee Vice Chairman Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's), "walks up to the line on policy, but never crosses it."
Ratchford and his staff spend much of their time apportioning state dollars. Once the legislature makes the political decision on how much of the state's education dollar should go to Baltimore, for instance, the task of formulating the mathematical underpinning falls to Ratchford and his staff.
The results, like the state's current basic expense formula for public education, are often so complex that Ratchford is among the few people in state government who fully understand them.
"They do the formulas backward," said Devlin, recognizing a basic legislative truth. "They take the number of left-handed people in Garrett County and multiply it by the square root of the number of unwed mothers in Edinburg and come up with the numbers you want."
Although Ratchford has authored many of Maryland's fiscal equations in the past decade, he characteristically has taken none of the credit. Ratchford, one legislator said, would never have his name on a major funding bill, as his predecessor Paul Cooper did. The 1967 legislation that included Maryland's first progressive income tax became known as the Cooper-Hughes bill, named for the head of fiscal services and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Harry Hughes.
In a political arena in which backbiting and vendettas are common, Ratchford is rarely criticized. The respect he enjoys is built on his 18 years in Fiscal Services -- the last 12 as its chief -- his recognized competence on fiscal matters and an independence that allows him to serve many masters in roughly equal fashion, regardless of their ideology or philosophy.
"In other systems you'd have Republican figures on school funding and Democratic figures on school funding," said Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery). "Baltimore figures and Montgomery County figures, and only a small portion of the legislature would buy the staff figures. Ratchford has set up a system where there is only one set of figures that everybody believes. So we go on from there to policy."
"His other great strength," Kopp added, "is that he's been around a long time. He knows the issues and can anticipate the questions."
Ratchford's seemingly endless supply of written handouts is almost a standing joke in the legislature. When he is summoned to meet with the leadership or to accompany the legislative fiscal leaders to the governor's office, Ratchford always comes with a briefcase bulging with charts and computer runs.
"He's very circumspect unless called upon," noted House Minority Leader Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel). "He's very unobtrusive, but he's always there and always prepared."
Ratchford's analysis of the Hughes administration's plan to finance the bailout of several crippled savings and loans, for example, was far more comprehensive than the original description of the plan that Hughes provided to the legislature. The 29-page Fiscal Services report, compiled in just 12 days, estimated the costs of paying off depositors at three crippled thrifts under nine possible scenarios.
With the imprimatur of Ratchford, the estimates that differed little from the governor's became instantly credible in the legislature and left Hughes facing only token opposition.
After serving the legislature for nearly two decades, Ratchford has "become part of the institution, a built-in factor," Kopp said.
"He's probably the best politician down here," said Sen. John C. Coolahan, a combative Baltimore County Democrat who serves on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "He always manages to stay on top. He doesn't work for the General Assembly, he works for Mickey [Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg] and Ben [Cardin] and plays them off each other."
His allegiance to leadership is one of the few complaints aired about Ratchford by rank-and-file legislators. Some members suspect that he is not above manipulating numbers to serve the political agenda of the presiding officers.
"I think he does it," Coolahan said. "But I can't prove it."
Kopp gently chides Ratchford for not being more "adventurous" in seeking new fiscal solutions to problems. "He's seen an idea fail two times, and he is reluctant to devote staff time to an idea that he thinks will fail a third time," she said.
Though next year will bring a new governor and House speaker to Annapolis, Ratchford, who serves at the pleasure of the speaker and the Senate president, says he has no plans to move on. Until he decides to retire, Ratchford will remain, as Maloney described him, "the little guy in the control room making sure the dollars go where they're supposed to."