Assembly faces year of retrenchment, heavy issues Voters demand more programs but no new taxes

January 06, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Sobered by a bad economy and shaken by the electorate's message last November, the General Assembly starts its four-year term Wednesday as concerned about keeping the state from slipping backward as it usually is about moving it forward.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the state's cupboard is stocked to the minimum, with the prospect of even more limited resources. Legislators, who at this time of year traditionally crow about what they intend to do for the people, are worried about what government might take from the people.

Will Gov. William Donald Schaefer be forced to ask them to abandon still more government programs to keep the state's spending in balance with its declining revenues?

Or -- more frightening -- will he ask them to raise taxes to sustain basic government services at a time when many Marylanders are already struggling to make ends meet?

With the economy in recession, war threatening in the Middle East, a new round of federal tax increases just taking effect and the memory of the anti-incumbent fervor among voters still fresh in their minds, legislators generally agree that raising state taxes right now is the last thing Marylanders want them to do.

"People sent a strong message: 'No new taxes,' and I'm hearing that from both parties," said House Minority Whip Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard. "They're going to resist tax increases."

For weeks, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, has been positioning the House's Democratic leadership against any tax increases. Given the state of the economy, he insists, "It's asking an awful lot of us to try to raise any types of taxes."

Nevertheless, the Schaefer administration almost certainly will ask the legislature to raise the state's 18.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax, or to find some other way to pump money into a Transportation Trust Fund so depleted that highway construction projects around the state have been temporarily halted.

And the governor has on his desk the report of the Linowes commission, which recommends raising $800 million in new or expanded state taxes. The tax study group, headed by Montgomery lawyer R. Robert Linowes, believes that its plan would make the tax structure fairer, help pay for needed improvements in education and address the serious financial problems that Baltimore and other poor jurisdictions face over the next decade.

But Mr. Schaefer has been coy about how much of the Linowes proposal he intends to spring on the legislature this year. He is said to be waiting for the harsh impact of the current budget crisis to sink in with the 188 delegates and senators before playing his tax-increase card.

Over the past several months, state tax revenue has declined so sharply and expenses for mandated welfare, health care and prison programs have risen so fast that Mr. Schaefer and his aides were forced to trim $423 million from the current fiscal year's $11.6 billion budget.

"This is just the beginning, and next year's budget will be less and less," Mr. Schaefer warned last week. "People have to sit down and decide: 'Do we want to help people or not?' "

While the governor avoided for the time being the hundreds of layoffs he once said were inevitable, the reductions mean at least 3,100 frozen and vacant state jobs will be abolished in the coming fiscal year's budget. State employees have no hope for a general cost-of-living pay raise.

Most important, dozens of programs on which citizens have come to depend are likely to be scaled back or eliminated.

To Mr. Schaefer's ear, people are always clamoring for government to do more. Everywhere he goes, he says, people approach him for money for yet another government program. And whenever he trims a program back, protest groups spring up almost overnight to complain.

But legislators say what they heard the public telling them during the 1990 campaigns was that government was wasteful, that it cannot be all things to all people, and that like most families with bills that exceed their income, government must simply tighten its belt and get by with less.

"I think middle-class and middle-income Marylanders are, in essence, saying they want smarter government but they want a smaller government," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "They want government sized back, and they're afraid of government expansion because it means their pocketbooks are going to get hit harder."

As for the Linowes recommendations, Mr. Miller called it "nothing but a tax increase."

"There is an element of fairness many of us would support, but I don't know of any member of the Senate at this time willing to support additional tax burdens on middle-income Marylanders," he said.

Speaker Mitchell -- who comes from the Eastern Shore, where Governor Schaefer lost in most counties last November -- said he thinks Marylanders have lost confidence in their government. The legislature, he added, must prove it is spending money wisely before it considers raising taxes.

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