Gov. Harry Hughes spent the first day after his worst legislative session hunting Easter eggs with children and relaxing behind the broad desk in his State House office, unruffled and avowedly unconcerned about the political repercussions sure to come.
His proposals to raise the gasoline tax and revamp the state's horse racing industry had gone down to defeat in the closing hours of the General Assembly session. His two top corrections officials had resigned, leaving his prisons policy and the department in disarray. Political opponents, apparently smelling blood, were stepping up their attacks.
But Harry Hughes was as calm and even-tempered as ever. "The political fallout of what happens here -- I think people exaggerate it," he said. "I think it would be highly unusual for it to be an issue against me that the gas tax didn't pass."
In fact, Hughes' most bruising defeats in the General Assembly came on issues that probably will not hurt him with the electorate. But in a session that put his modest-manager style to its most difficult test, Hughes showed a critical weakness -- indecisiveness -- that his critics say ruined what should have been a far more productive year.
On a range of issues, but most noticeably in his most important initiative of the year -- the ill-fated $68 millio n tax and spending package -- Hughes lost crucial days while he methodically weighed options and wavered between positions. In the end, legislative leaders contended that the gas tax, the cornerstone of that package, could have passed if only they had had more time.
The governor had entered the session determined to show that he could manage the state's money, the job he considers most important for an executive. He submitted a scaled -down budget, and pledged himself to finding a way to pay for three programs it did not fund, including a state employes' pay raise.
And yet, for the first two months of the session, Hughes contended himself with waiting for new tax collection estimates from his advisers, hoping that a bullish report from them could solve the problem without executive action.
Aides who ventured into his office found him behind his expansive desk, methodically poring over routine bills, much as he did when he chaired the Senate Finance Committee years ago. Some legislative leaders one floor below said they rarely heard from him. One complained at mid-session: "I have no idea what he's doing."
Then, with a month to go in the session, Hughes got the grim, put not wholly unanticipated news from his fiscal experts: Tax collections were still so depressed that that the governor would have to propose a new tax package to fund his desired programs.
Days later, when the experts publicly announced the news to Hughes and a roomful of reporters, the governor was asked what action he planned to take. He was not ready to act, he said. "It means I'm going to have to make some decision now about what, if anything, I'm going to do."
In an interview today, Hughes retraced the steps by which he reached his decision over 10 days. At first, he said, he contemplated doing nothing at all, simply deferring the programs until next year. "In fact, I had prepared a supplemental budget that would do just that," he recalled.
"But then I had to think: Will we need the money for next year? Or, on the other hand, could we skip by without it? I came to the conclusion that we really needed it," he continued. "The thing that was all along the hardest to figure out is: What were the odds of getting it passed?
"But the more I thought about it -- and I made the decision myself, on a Sunday Afternoon, sitting behind this desk -- I decided that it was the responsible thing to do, knowing full well that the odds of getting it enacted were not great."
Aides said Hughes was still redrafting the package up until two hours before he unveiled it the next night, although the governor said today that he "had the basic concept in my mind all along."
The first reaction from legislative leaders, who had been wondering aloud for days when Hughes would act, was that it was to late in a divisive session to rally support for the package of gas and truck taxes, and aid programs for public schools and colleges. Also included was a proposal for modest employe pay raises.
"There's no time, there's no time," House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) was said to have complained to Hughes' aides. In the end, Cardin's prediction proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: He urged a House committee to kill the gas tax last night because, he said, there simply wasn't enough time to move it through floor fights in both houses.
Ironically, it was in the ill-fated gas tax fight that Hughes displayed his most impressive legislative skills. After the bill was defeated on the Senate floor, he lobbied intensively and persuaded six senators to change their votes. The measures passed, and was sent to the House, where an initially resistent leadership agreed on the last day of the session to a compromise mesure that Hughes contended could pass the Senate and be enacted. c
But the plan died in the last hours of the session, as did in the last hours of the session, as did the complex racing reorganization bill. That bill languished in committees for a month before Hughes struck a compromise that could bring it to the floor. And Hughes said today that the racing bill probably could have passed with only an extra day or two.
Hughes also drew criticism from legislators for his deliberate handling of a developing crisis in state prison programs. According to aides, Hughes had known for months that he would eventually have to replace his embattled correstions chiefs, Gordon Kamba. But he did nothing, and finally Kamka resigned after the indictments of 27 inmates for crimes allegedly committed while in a state work-release program. "This was bound to happen," an aide said after the indictments. "We just never realized it would be this bad."
Hughes today resisted the notion that his methodical approach had doomed any of his programs. "If we'd had some more time, maybe we could have made a difference, but I'm not convinced of that," he said wistfully. "There are always going to be reasons given why things don't happen. It's always nice to say, 'If the governor had done this, and the governor had done that.' But the opportunitgy was there on the gas tax. All they had to do was vote for the bill last night."
Last night, Hughes' top aide indicated that governor would project a far more forceful and decisive stance in the wake of the gas tax defeat. He boldly told a reporter: "The governor is willing to bite the bullet and embrace and work very hard for the tax program next year."
Today, however, when asked about his plans, Harry Hughes was his old self: "That might be necessary," he said. "But of course there are other options. That decision has not been made."