Budget request called a sham Late proposal is heavy with "people" funds.

March 26, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff William Thompson contributed to this story.

Lawmakers have rejected as just "public relations" a late supplemental budget request from Gov. William Donald Schaefer to pump millions of dollars from new taxes and transportation projects into programs that aid the environment, the poor and schools.

"There is nothing in the supplemental budget that can be considered now. . . . [It] plays on the emotions of people who deserve a better fate," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

"I don't know what you call it, but it's not good government."

A joint statement by Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, said Schaefer's supplemental budget request came too late -- only two weeks before the end of the General Assembly's 90-day session -- and would not be formally considered. Lawmakers will continue to work with the governor's staff to fund some of the programs the governor highlighted, the statement said.

Charles L. Benton, Schaefer's budget secretary, hinted that more controversy could be on its way. He said another budget amendment was being prepared and, depending on how lawmakers received yesterday's proposal, could be submitted as early as today.

Also today, key members of the Senate and House were scheduled to begin meetings to resolve differences between the budgets passed by the two chambers. According to the state constitution, the two houses must agree on a single spending plan by April 1.

In yesterday's proposal, Schaefer embraced the cigarette tax increases now being considered by the General Assembly, but rejected the proposal by the House to reduce Maryland's capital gains tax break, as well as the Senate plan to extend the sales tax to cafeteria meals and certain other food.

Schaefer proposed that the money sought in the budget supplement be spent on a slew of "people-oriented" efforts, including $10 million for AIDs victims in Baltimore. Other money would be used for the city's police and schools, to increase staffing in state mental hospitals, to preserve a state kidney-dialysis assistance program and to reverse cuts in welfare grants that Schaefer announced earlier this month, to take effect April 1.

Schaefer also proposed $1 million in state aid to the Women, Infant and Children nutrition programs, which would make Maryland one of the few states that contributes to the largely federal program. This was among several projects that were not contained in Schaefer's original budget request submitted in January.

In all, Schaefer asked for $48.3 million in new spending. He said he would transfer $38.6 million from other programs and would accept $59.7 million in tobacco taxes recommended by the Senate. He also revived his proposal to make a one-time transfer of $76.6 million to the General Fund from the Transportation Trust Fund.

Legislators have balked at the fund shift, saying it would gut the state's transportation program. But the Schaefer administration depicted the choice as one between "people or concrete."

"If ever there was a year to take stock, to think about our priorities, it is this year," Schaefer said in a statement released by his office.

Schaefer aides held an unusual session yesterday with lobbyists representing environmental, children's-defense and health-advocacy groups to drum up support for the plan.

Nelson Sabatini, acting secretary of health and mental hygiene, said, "We are talking about very critical and important needs, and the legislature is going to have to make a decision about whether we are going to help people or pour concrete."

Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, who only a few weeks ago was calling a new gasoline tax vital to protecting the state's transportation infrastructure, yesterday softened his rhetoric. "We're in a better position to take a hit than the general fund," he said.

But lawmakers viewed the exercise as one designed to make them look bad for rejecting aid to needy causes.

"It's another example that there's no ability [by the governor] to work with the legislature to try to develop a package," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Benton denied there was any politics at work in the proposal and said it was simply an effort by the governor to mesh needs with available resources.

Benton also warned of financial trouble ahead. Several one-time-only transfers of funds and other sleight-of-hands were used to balance the 1992 budget, and that could create troubles for the 1993 spending plan, he said.

One estimate by state analysts suggests that tax revenues could fall $365 million short of state spending by 1993, he said.

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