First in a series of occasional articles.
One of the most powerful people in this town is so boring you could fall asleep listening to him talk about his work. That's when he unleashes his dry sense of humor, finding new ways to say things to keep even himself from being bored.
Maryland state budget.
Last weekend, for example, as he and his staff rehearsed what they would tell members of the General Assembly about the new $23 billion state budget released by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, he invented a new take on the old budget hole. Beginning in 2005, he pronounced as he followed a chart's upward spiral, "spending takes a walk on the wild side."
It was Saturday, and the staffers around the table in Deschenaux's office wore jeans, sneakers, flannels and sweaters with wintry designs. They reviewed charts, moved asterisks, and discussed the idea of giving door prizes to lawmakers who stay for the full briefing - a tear sheet of how each county is affected by the budget, which is all the legislators want to know anyway. Suddenly it dawned on Deschenaux why his estimate of future spending was higher than the governor's - the governor's people probably left out cost-of-living raises for state employees. "Those b-------!" he said calmly.
One more thing to explain to lawmakers who employ him, not in such language, of course, but he does tries to keep it light. As director of policy analysis in the Department of Legislative Services, his job is to "blow away the smoke and adjust the mirrors" in the governor's budget. This year he's clearing more smoke than usual - the governor is counting on $231 million, or 1 percent of the budget, from sources Deschenaux thinks are shaky. OK, maybe a whopping settlement is in the offing from a few companies that avoided taxes by registering in Delaware, but will $64 million from them materialize? To him, it's a pie-in-the-sky estimate. "It's nice to have hope."
He used to be terrified of lawmakers when he started in state service in 1979. It took years to relax. He got "old" - he's 50 - and they got young. They treat him well. And why not, because he provides their grist? His wife and sons, 11 and 13, know not to expect him for dinner this time of year. He is in such demand that, for the heck of it, his staff computed how many meetings he'd be going to in a week if every senator met with every delegate and invited him: 6,627.
Nobody tells Deschenaux what to think, and although he's made some people mad, he's held this job since 1997.
Computer tape by computer tape, sub-office by sub-office, his 140-member staff peers into the crannies of each state agency. What do they find? Not much waste. But they do find programs to cut. Last year, his analysts recommended cutting the Smart Growth land-management office, which the new governor's staff said was a terrible idea. This year, the governor wants to cut it.
He first earned his stripes in the mid-1980s when he faced off against Sen. John A. Cade, then the state's financial whiz.
Deschenaux is one of the techies produced by the Eagleton Institute, the graduate think-tank on state government at Rutgers University. But he also has a law degree. His predecessor, Bill Ratchford, put him in charge of the state's transportation budget after seeing his aptitude for numbers. Deschenaux soon figured out the state had a lot more money than it realized from the $5 car title tax. Suddenly, Light Rail for Baltimore was possible. This was rare; most reports from his office shoot down ideas rather than find new money. There are lots of bad ideas out there, and he sorts through them on a nonpartisan, facts-only basis.
The difference between Deschenaux and James "Chip" DiPaula Jr., the state budget secretary who designs the governor's budget, is that Deschenaux doesn't have to sell anything - lawmakers decide what to do with his suggestions - and he has more time to think.
He thinks about mental health - the governor is $50 million short for community programs, he estimates - and he thinks about prisons: Are there really too many guards?
What he thinks about most is something called the structural deficit. This has led to what he calls his mantra: We are spending more than we are taking in. Whenever he can, he tells it to lawmakers. They've heard it so much, he fears it is falling on deaf ears.
Until now, Maryland has achieved nearly mythic status because of the way it runs things. Only six other states have the same highest bond rating, AAA, which means they also can borrow cheaply to build schools and roads. The state is rated so highly because by law it can spend only what it collects in taxes. States with poor ratings use tricks; they borrow on future tobacco-settlement payments, which they turn around and spend. Deschenaux is so innocent he doesn't know which gimmicks are in vogue.
With veteran lawmakers who shared his concern gone - the late Sen. Cade and Howard P. Rawlings, Robert R. Neall, Barbara A. Hoffman, Nancy K. Kopp (now the state treasurer) - Deschenaux has become the keeper of the fiscal culture. Only last week, Sen. Ulysses Currie, in his second year as chair of the Senate Budget and Tax Committee, referred to him as the coach, who with his team is the reason the state still has its high rating.
No question Deschenaux loves his job. Where the dissatisfaction comes in, he says, is over the failure of anybody to act, to choose something to stop the spiral. New taxes, slot-machine revenues, more cuts - there are plenty of solutions. His staff spent the summer investigating how to improve tax collection, in case any lawmaker wants to fiddle with that. Lotta good that did; no bills in the hopper yet. Lawmakers will probably cut at least $9 million to keep the budget balanced, but in the next six weeks his staff will suggest cuts worth $50 million or more. Will it make any difference?
Oddly, if you hang around Deschenaux long enough and catch his humor, things in the state budget become clear. And if you could only have heard him congratulate a staffer last week: "This is a great chart, Dave. It will have to be explained many times, but at least we have something to start with."
Letters from Annapolis