Governor William Donald Schaefer (1921-2011)


The State of Maryland lost a real character last week.  Former Governor Schaefer died April 18, 2011.  He was Governor from 1987 to 1995.  Prior to that he had been the Mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1986.

As the Mayor of Baltimore he was responsible for turning the Baltimore Inner Harbor into an exciting tourist attraction.  When the National Aquarium of Baltimore opened in 1981, Schaefer showed up in a 1920’s bathing suit.

I only met him once.  We were holding a General Law Spring Conference of the ABA in Annapolis.  Schaefer hosted a small group of us for cocktails in the governor’s mansion.  He spoke to us for a short while.  I don’t remember anything he said, but I came away thinking that he was impressive and humorous.  He stood on the steps leading upstairs and we were gathered in a hallway below.  I remember him introducing a woman to us who was not his wife.  This confused me, but I confused easily.

I suspect Governor Schaefer didn’t know I was there.  Yet, it was only a few years later when he wrote to the Secretary of Transportation, Andy Card about me.  He advised Andy to keep a close eye on me because I was a troublemaker.  He probably didn’t realize that I had had the opportunity earlier to swipe his silver, but had left the mansion with only my bride.

The problem came up in June of 1992 when the Maryland legislature passed a gas guzzler tax.  New cars with terrible gas mileage (gas guzzlers) would pay a high tax when purchased.  New cars with excellent gas milage would pay a much smaller tax.

I was Chief Counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and we were responsible for regulating Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) for the automobile industry.  When Congress gave us that authority, it also prohibited states from coming up with their own plans.  You can see how frustrating it would be for the auto industry if each state could set its own fuel economy standards.

So I wrote a letter to Maryland’s Attorney General, Joseph Curran, Jr. explaining that their gas guzzler tax flew in the face of the Congressional mandate that the Federal government would regulate fuel economy.  I realized that what Maryland had done was embarrassing, but I thought it was to their advantage to learn about their mistake as soon as possible.

Wow!  I soon learned that when politics is involved, nothing is clear.  From reading the Baltimore Sun, you would have thought that I was assembling troops just inside the DC border, getting ready to invade the State of Maryland.  Then State Senator Chris Van Hollen accused the Bush Administration of attempting to take away Maryland’s taxing authority (In a later life, Chris and I were partners at Arent Fox).  I was interviewed on National Public Radio (our tax dollars at work) wanting to know why the Federal government was prohibiting the sovereign State of Maryland from exercising their tax authority.  I got the feeling that Van Hollen had written the questions.  I explained that I had no problem with Maryland taxing whatever they wanted, as long as it didn’t, in fact, regulate fuel economy.

Attorney General Curran told the press that the law might have to be tweaked.  Give me a break.  The gas guzzler tax was dead on arrival.  It had run out of fuel.

Then Secretary Card received a letter from Governor Schaefer blasting me as a troublemaker.  Maybe I should have swiped his silver.  By that time I had adopted P. T. Barnum’s approach to notoriety, “I don’t care what you say.  Just spell my name right.”

This is how the bureaucracy works.  When the Secretary’s office received the letter from Governor Schaefer regarding a NHTSA matter, they send it to NHTSA to prepare a response for the Secretary’s signature.  When NHTSA sees that the letter involves a legal matter, they send it to the office of the Chief Counsel for a response.  So guess who got to answer Governor Schaefer’s letter?  Yours truly.  I know that you are not the least surprised that Secretary Card thought that Paul Jackson Rice was doing an outstanding job as Chief Counsel.

Written by PJ Rice on www.ricequips.com

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