ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly, which opened its session this year with the opportunity to restructure Maryland's entire tax system, ended 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 minimally productive 90-day session -- a year in which the legislature killed or sent to summer study virtually every major initiative except for abortion, campaign reform, and a law to make government meetings more open to the public.
The legislature's vote to send more money to the state's six poorest subdivisions was contained in a Senate bill appropriating $11.4 million to them in the coming year. But when the measure hit the House late yesterday, it drew heated opposition from suburban Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore County lawmakers, 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, and the bill ultimately was approved in the House, 107-19.
"For the first time, it establishes the principle of elevating poor counties to a higher level of funding," said 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 his budget if he lacks the money.
As the lawmakers crept toward their midnight adjournment, the House and Senate approved a pair of campaign finance reform bills that will place limits on political action committee contributions, raise individual contribution limits, and attempt to move lobbyists out of the political fund-raising business. By the time the final votes were tallied, the compromises had been struck and the bills went through without debate.
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, and to let some podiatrists operate on ankles.
Still awaiting final resolution as the dinner hour passed last night were bills to give the state more control over the hiring and firing of local social services directors, and to add a recycling tax of up to a dollar for every new tire sold in Maryland.
A bill that would have required Maryland cars to meet California's tough vehicle emissions standards appeared headed for 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, 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 $l Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years, principally by raising the tax on gasoline.
Potentially the most enduring act came during the session's opening month, when legislators 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.
Legislators arrived in Annapolis Jan. 9 vowing not to raise taxes, but did so anyway to cover a huge budget deficit caused by the recession. Ultimately, they balanced this year's and next year's budget with $95 million in higher taxes on cigarettes, capital gains and certain food sales.
They also used some of the tax proceeds to send the $11.4 million to Baltimore and five poor counties: Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett and Somerset.
It was a session initially overshadowed by the Persian Gulf war, consumed for its first month by the debate over abortion, and troubled from beginning to end by a recession that left the state facing deficits exceeding $700 million this year and next.
Mutual distrust and quirky behavior from the governor permeated the session.