Infused with what is being called "David Stockman Fever," normally staid members of a House budget committee here have been charging about their committee room wearing helmets, carrying swords and humming funeral dirges as they gleefully slash millions of dollars from Gov. Harry Hughes' proposed state budget.
To the dismay of Hughes and the legislative leadership, the committee has already cut $50 million from the new state budget in the last three days, or four times more than it normally cuts. Led by a brigade of freshmen and veteran conservatives, it has slashed funds for welfare and hospitals, prisons and Medicaid, and lopped out whole state programs that have been deemed unnecessary.
"We figure that we've saved the taxpayers $100,000 for ever hour we've worked on this budget," bragged Del. Robert Neall (R-Anne Arundel), one of the firebrands in the budget assault.
Already, the committee has gored so many formidable interests that normally hostile House factions have begun trading votes in a bid to undo the committee's proposed cuts when they reach the floor next week. The specter of divisiveness has so concerned House leaders that Speaker Ben Cardin is running interference with the committee's leaders.
And Hughes, who normally spurns conflict with the legislature, announced unsolicited at his weekly press conference that he plans to launch a lobbying campaign to derail the committee's recommendations.
But the fever in House Appropriations rages on. "Our executive isn't too happy with some of the cuts we've been making," noted the panel's stern chairman, Del. John Hargreaves (D-Caroline) yesterday. "He wants to appear before us and when he does there's going to be some headknocking. So some of you might want to wear your helmets."
As it turned out, Hughes did not show up today, but three committee members came outfitted in helmets and Hargreaves for his part, brought along a rubber hose.
The committee members' zeal arises in part from a perception that shrinking state revenues require far more drastic measures than Hughes adopted in balancing this year's budget. Said Hargreaves: "We are just trying to get our shops in order for a tough year that will probably make this year's problems look like duck soup."
But Hargreaves and his troops acknowledge that federal budget director Stockman's mentality has spilled all the way into their committee room, and fired up the panel's longstanding vigor to put its austere signature on budgets sent down by the governor. "Even if the cuts don't hold up in the Senate, we want to make a stand," said Del. Timothy Maloney, whose own enthusiasm has caused him to rush from the committee room after meetings waving printouts of the slashes. "I think we're responding to what people out there really want."
So far, it appears that most of the committee's cuts might be approved by the House. A series of meetings in the last two days between committee members, Cardin and other leadership officials has ended with Cardin endorsing almost all of the committee's work. However, most members of the House leadership still dispute one or more of the slashes.
"I support what the committee has done," Cardin said. "I think there is a general feeling that we haven't bottomed out of our fiscal problems. What they have done -- eliminating whole programs -- that takes guts."
Hughes, however, who spent most of the fall working on the budget and presented it as a model of efficient management in a difficult fiscal era, seems to have taken the committee's huge cuts as a personal affront.
"This is a very, very tight budget," he declared at his press conference. "I spent from September until Christmas Eve -- literally Christmas Eve -- on it. It was done in a way to minimize harm . . . and the cuts I'm hearing about are going way beyond that."
Hughes said he will lobby for the restoration of $15 million that the committee diverted from his tight Medicaid budget, $9 million cut from one of Baltimore's pet projects, fire protection for the harbor. In addition, he attacked the axing of hundreds of jobs that have been vacant for six months or longer.
When told that the committee feels the cuts are justified in light of Maryland's fiscal ills, Hughes testily responded, "It's true, if you're looking at figures. As governor, I have to look at people."
The governor has not been having much luck persuading the committee of that so far. When Del. Frank Robey (D-Baltimore) called a meeting of his subcommittee this morning in an attempt to have them reconsider the fire protection cut, for example, the defiant membership responded only by wailing the sounds of fire engines.
And in contrast to Hughes' attack on the welfare cuts, the feeling within the Appropriations committee is that the panel reviewing welfare did not go far enough. Hargreaves has prepared a list of further cuts for the Department of Human Resources, which oversees welfare and other programs for the poor, and was planning to submit it to the committee for a vote tonight.
"We're going to stay here until the budget is set in stone, however long it takes," he said firmly early in the evening.
A solemn Hargreaves later delivered a sermon to his committee on the need for total solidarity when the budget reaches the House floor and encounters the anticipated resistance.
"We'll go to battle, and I tonight assure you of complete support," he vowed, his gravelly voice rising and falling in the style of a revival preacher. "I'm not at all happy when I hear the shots from the hip of many people -- people who don't know how to fire the gun. My message should be coming through to you loud and clear. Stick to your guns, not to somebody else's."