Legislature ends session marked by deferrals Late vote recognizes a need to do more

April 09, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly, which opened its session this year with the opportunity to restructure Maryland's entire tax system, adjourned last night with a vote merely acknowledging that the state must do more to help Baltimore and the state's poorest counties.

It was belated recognition of the unfinished business left from this year's 90-day session -- a year in which the legislature killed or sent to summer study virtually every major initiative except for abortion and campaign finance reform.

Leaders of both houses indicated some of the issues they did not act upon might be taken up later this year when the General Assembly reconvenes in September to adopt a legislative redistricting plan.

During their final 14-hour day, the 188 delegates and senators also voted to permit the State Highway Administration to raise speed limits on rural interstate highways to 65 mph, to approve Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to restructure the state college scholarship program, to revise a formula to pump more money into Maryland's community colleges, to require all 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten, and to strengthen the state's open-meetings law.

The Assembly also enacted a $1 tax on each tire sold in Maryland, to help pay for the cost of recycling used tires.

The legislature's vote to send $11.4 million to the state's six poorest subdivisions in the coming fiscal year was contained in a Senate bill that drew heated opposition from suburban Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore County delegates, who fear it could result in permanent, annual grants to the six jurisdictions at their expense.

"This goes well beyond our original budget deal," complained Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. "This is not some harmless repetition of state policy. It is a new policy . . . that says, 'A grant shall be made to offset disparities in local income tax revenues.' "

But efforts to delete or weaken the requirement were defeated by more than two-to-one margins.

"For the first time, it establishes the principle of elevating poor counties to a higher level of funding," said the sponsor, Sen. John A. Pica, D-Baltimore. "It recognizes the disparities between poorer and richer jurisdictions."

Backers said the bill merely reiterated the state's goal of helping its poorest subdivisions. They tried to calm nervous opponents by waving an attorney general's opinion that says the governor does not have to finance the grant in future budgets if he lacks the money.

Long before their midnight adjournment, delegates and senators approved a pair of campaign finance reform bills limiting political action committee contributions and attempting to move lobbyists out of the political fund-raising business.

In another bill designed to build trust in government, the legislature -- with a scant two hours left in the session -- voted overwhelmingly to strengthen Maryland's open-meetings law. The two sides struck their final compromise by agreeing to review after two years whether their decision to make gubernatorial and other advisory commissions subject to the open-meetings law has had any detrimental effect.

A bill that would have required Maryland cars to meet California's tough vehicle emissions standards went to a solitary death, denied even a committee vote by a powerful opponent, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Yesterday's actions ended a session that was indisputably the worst for Governor Schaefer since he came to office five years ago. The legislature rejected his major tax restructuring initiative from the Linowes commission, his comprehensive plan to control growth in the Chesapeake Bay region, his effort to ban the sale and possession of assault weapons, and his proposal to pump $1.5 billion into the Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years, principally by raising the tax on gasoline.

"We are all aware that putting off problems until next year only exacerbates the problems," Mr. Schaefer said in a closing letter to the presiding officers, also reminding legislators of their promises to address his unfinished proposals this summer and next session.

Those issues, said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, in a post-adjournment speech, represent "a blueprint for the next three years." The tax restructuring plan, the growth management proposals and the transportation funding issues, he said, will be dealt with.

"Will we need new revenue?" the speaker asked. "Who knows? We might have to revisit the transportation funding issue gain in September," when the Assembly reconvenes to deal with congressional redistricting.

Potentially, the legislature's most enduring act came during the session's opening month, when lawmakers ended a two-year fight by approving a bill assuring a woman's right to an abortion in Maryland. But a move to petition the law to referendum in 1992 may mean even that action will not be final until voters have their say.

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