ANNAPOLIS -- A year after their arrival in the state capital, some aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer continue to believe that the General Assembly is an obstacle to be surmounted, not -- as legislators like to think -- a partner to be wooed. That attitude has yet to pay off, and nowhere is that more evident this session than in the administration's handling of its controversial plan to build a light rail system in the Baltimore area.
The administration's script for the light rail story, long on action and short on subtlety, had to be rewritten in haste last week when it became clear that trouble lay ahead. The revised story line, a light romance, once again relies on the emergency services of Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg as hero and leading man in a role he might have written for himself.
It's Steinberg's mission to offer administration mea culpas, win over an offended legislative leadership and bring home a light rail compromise plan for the administration.
In his opening lines on the subject last week, Steinberg acknowledged that the administration bungled the issue early on, hurting some feelings and ignoring the traditional protocol between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Schaefer aides knew the $290 million light rail idea would face resistance, because it in part involves the use of gas tax revenue designated for roads and bridges and it would serve Baltimore primarily. Its success would seem to hinge on lining up the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell (D-Kent) and other legislative leaders, who are cool to the idea of funding a light rail line to Baltimore.
But Miller and Mitchell have complained their support was never sought, which added to their opposition. They complain that they were never consulted in advance about a light rail line and that they heard about the proposal only when the administration unveiled it at a December news conference.
Instead, administration aides decided to go over their heads. They went out to the provinces and enlisted the support of county executives, who then individually lobbied the members of their General Assembly delegations. It was a lobbying strategy that didn't win the administration many friends.
Because the light rail line would run through Baltimore, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, the Schaefer administration had no problem gaining the support of the chief executives in those areas. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen and Anne Arundel Executive James Lighthizer want the light rail line too, and they were eager to remind their delegations how important such a project could be to constituents.
What has particularly upset Miller and Mitchell is how the administration went after two county executives whose home bases have nothing visible to gain from the project -- Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer and Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, Miller's political rival.
The wooing of Kramer and Glendening took place at a private lunch last month at the Governor's Mansion. The event was the brainchild of Maryland Secretary of State Winfield Kelly, a Prince George's County resident, and was attended by Kelly, Kramer, Glendening, Schaefer and Schaefer's de facto chief of staff, Mark Wasserman, who until Steinberg's arrival on the scene was the administration's architect of the strategy on light rail.
Not only did going to the county executives infuriate Miller and Mitchell, it also placed in a tough spot some of the committee chairmen and others who hold leadership posts. It looked like they would have to buck their county executives or say no to the men who can take away their positions of power in the General Assembly. Kramer and Glendening have been talking to members of their respective delegations about the project.
One legislator caught in the middle was Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), vice chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, which is hearing the proposal. Kelly is all for the light rail plan, because it would directly serve his constituents in the Hunt Valley area north of Baltimore, but he acknowleged that he has been under some pressure from Miller to oppose the project.
"I have a duty to fight for it," Kelly said.
He and other legislators believe that Miller and Mitchell have the power to kill the plan, but they believe that it would cost them dearly with their own troops to do so. "If it came between a county executive and the speaker, most delegates would go with the speaker," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner (D-Anne Arundel), a leading proponent of the light rail plan.
"This issue could potentially disrupt this legislature and create wounds that last a long time," said Kelly.
Expectations are now that, with Steinberg's intervention, Mitchell and other House leaders will soon reach a consensus on a compromise plan. Several key legislators said they believe that it is likely to involve General Assembly approval of funds to design a portion of the light rail project while the rail needs of the rest of the state are studied over the next year.