General Assembly at Mid-Point

February 24, 1991

Halfway through its annual 90-day session, the Maryland General Assembly faces an imposing array of unresolved issues. The state's on-going recession and the impact it is having on tax and spending policies adds even more uncertainty to these State House deliberations.

With revenue forecasts changing every few weeks, House and Senate budget panels have gotten a late start focusing on the specifics of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's $11.6 billion request. When the budget-cutting begins in earnest, a vast array of social service programs could be adversely affected. Pressure for tax increases could start to build at that point.

Key among them is the administration's requested 6 1/2 -cent gas-tax increase. Without this revenue, road-building and mass transit improvements could grind to a halt. Even routine maintenance and repairs would suffer. But House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell remains adamant that there is no need for a tax hike this year. Legislators from gridlocked Montgomery County, though, are pressing the speaker to soften his "no new taxes" stance.

Budget problems could also lead lawmakers to take a closer look at recommendations of the Linowes commission on tax reform. Lt. Gov. Melvin S. Steinberg is touting a $200 million "interim" tax plan to provide hard-hit counties with fiscal relief, give a boost to Baltimore City and soften the recession's impact on social services.

Another Schaefer initiative may not fare as well. Opposition to setting up statewide growth-control standards has not subsided. Legislators are troubled by the vagueness of the proposal, which would give a commission broad powers to define rapid-growth and conservation areas. The administration faces an uphill battle.

The outlook is more favorable for a package of campaign reform bills co-sponsored by Mr. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that would crack down on campaign abuses by lobbyists. The leaders want to end public suspicions that lobbyists are attempting to "buy" legislators at election time.

Efforts to curb ownership of assault weapons also could succeed this session as could a new attempt to pass a reforestation bill outlining tree-planting efforts by developers. Momentum is growing as well for a bill permitting stripped-down, low-cost health-insurance plans for the state's uninsured. But another insurance measure, no-fault auto insurance, remains in trouble because of Mr. Miller's vehement opposition.

While lawmakers can take pride in their swift and decisive handling of the abortion issue this month, most of their important work remains on the table. They should not foreclose options by taking unyielding positions on tax and spending matters. They should remain open-mind. Maryland has major unresolved problems. General Assembly leaders should use their remaining time in Annapolis to roll up their sleeves and find some answers.

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