Schaefer unveils agenda, 5% gas tax State of State's tone is one of conciliation

January 19, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Urging lawmakers not to succumb to "melancholy paralysis," a seemingly conciliatory Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled an ambitious legislative agenda yesterday that includes a 5 percent sales tax on gasoline and the state takeover of Baltimore's jail and zoo.

In the first State of the State address of the new term, Governor Schaefer told legislators he also wants to privatize the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents, promote an Olympic Festival in Maryland, and use money now committed to improve school systems to finance sweeping reforms in education.

The five-year, $1.5 billion gas tax proposal was the centerpiece of the package of administration bills unveiled yesterday by the governor, who stressed that tax-fearful legislators should "think about what's good for the whole state, in addition to your own districts."

Revenue from the proposed sales tax on gas, along with money raised by increasing motor vehicle, truck and registration fees, would go toward resuscitating an ailing highway construction program and for other transit projects suffering from a slump in tax revenue.

The 5 percent gas sales tax, a popular idea in traffic-clogged Montgomery County, may not get a universally warm welcome.

By recommending a sales tax on gas, the governor has abandoned the traditional per-gallon form of fuel tax in favor of one that would go up as the price of fuel goes up. Such efforts have been rejected in the past by legislators who have argued that only they -- and not inflation -- should raise taxes.

One early criticism of the tax is that it is calculated on top of the price of a gallon plus the 14-cent federal and 18.5-cent state gasoline taxes, essentially creating a tax on a tax.

In a surprise move, the governor called for state government to take over two financially burdensome institutions from Baltimore, the City Jail and the zoo. The proposals drew initial applause from city legislators until the governor, quoting commentator Paul Harvey, told them "the rest of the story."

In exchange for taking over the jail and its $40 million yearly operating cost, Mr. Schaefer said, the state would no longer give the city its $38 million share of the police aid formula, a swap that will delay much of the net financial benefit to the city.

The perennially overcrowded and crumbling jail facility has long been a problem for the city. The state has already appropriated $56 million toward an 800-bed expansion, but the administration has been frustrated by its inability to get the city to move on the project.

The city-owned zoo, which is operated by the Maryland Zoological Society, receives annual subsidies of $2.1 million from the city and $350,000 from the state. Under the governor's proposal, the state would assume responsibility for the city's share of the subsidy.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke could not be reached for comment yesterday, but aides said they were surprised by the announcement and would reserve judgment. "It is something that our fiscal people have to look at before we pass judgment on it," said Clinton R. Coleman Jr., the mayor's spokesman.

The governor's 1991 legislative ambitions also included controversial proposals to force subdivisions to restrict development, a "Schools for Success" program that awards grants to schools based on a yearly statewide report card, and a plan -- twice defeated by past legislatures -- to give state officials a say in who runs local social services offices.

But the 40-minute address to a joint session of the House of Delegates and Senate -- delayed 21 minutes while delegates listened to President Bush's noon news conference piped over their loudspeakers from a portable radio -- was just as notable for what it didn't include.

For the first time in at least 60 years, the governor's budget was not submitted before this weekend's constitutional deadline. Nor did the governor include in his initiatives any of the recommendations of the Linowes tax structure commission, which suggested a variety of new taxes that could raise $800 million in the next year alone.

Mr. Schaefer has blamed the budget delay on the difficulty of balancing a spending plan in a time of economic downturn. Aides claim that the governor will wait until an extra-lean budget is submitted later this month, hoping legislators will then be hungry enough to stomach Linowes tax proposals that Senate budget chairman Laurence L. Levitan, D-Montgomery, has labeled "Dead On Arrival."

"I say some areas of the state will be D-I-L-I-N-P -- Dead If Linowes Is Not Passed," Mr. Schaefer said. "I'm asking you to read the Linowes report. Look at the budget and decide if you're ready to turn your backs on those who need us most."

Unlike many of his previous, often-rambling speeches to the legislature where he paced behind the podium or relied on charts or props like gag eyeglasses, a more statesman-

like governor stuck closely to a prepared text that dwelled on the need for better cooperation.

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