Commissioners Set Sights Low, But Did Hit Targets

ANNAPOLIS '91--Carroll County delegation--Continuing coverage of the Carroll County legislative delegation during '91 General Assembly session

Schaefer Stance Created Stress, Legislators Say

April 10, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

ANNAPOLIS — Carroll legislators will remember the 1991 General Assembly session as a trying one in which a voters' mandate to hold the line on taxes was broken, a rift between the governor and the legislature widened and major initiatives were banished into limbo.

Gov. William DonaldSchaefer's frequent conflicts with legislative leaders, who sometimes refused to consider the executive's far-reaching proposals and chided him for making hasty policy decisions, produced a stressful atmosphere, said Carroll lawmakers. Several said the ongoing battle hindered productivity this year and could cause more damage in years to come.

"If this continues, I don't know quite frankly how we're going todo a good job for the citizens," said Delegate Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, Howard. "My concern is that we'll have a four-year lame duck, and that doesn't bode well for citizens."

Elliott said the governor's effectiveness was "eroded by his behavior," referring to several surprise announcements, later rescinded by the governor, of impending state employee layoffs, expanded workweeks for state workers and social program cuts.

"He was always throwing something out that alarmed the citizens," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, Baltimore. "Then they contacted us. It took up a lot of our time."

However, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, pointed out that the governor's first four years also were "acrimonious" but "productive."

This year also featured the passage of some significant legislation amid the strife. Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll, Baltimore, had a lead role in passing a bill protecting the rightto abortion, already signed into law by the governor; a comprehensive forest conservation plan was passed; and campaign reforms were achieved.

But the major administration proposals -- a tax structure overhaul that would produce about $800 million in new revenue in the first year, a 5 percent increase in the gas tax and a state-administered growth management program -- simply were introduced at the wrong time, Carroll legislators said. The recession, a growing state budget deficit and voters' disdain for any new taxes or expanded government programs jeopardized the proposals from the start, they said.

"We're not saying that all these programs won't be accepted; they just weren't in the plan this year," said Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll,Frederick, Howard. "The executive thinks we've turned him down. It'snot because of the merits of the programs but because of the timing."

Delegate Richard C. Matthews, R-Carroll, lamenting that the Democrat-controlled legislature squelches the views of the minority party, said he was encouraged that the administration's ambitious initiatives met with some opposition.

"I've never seen it before," he said. "They usually just capitulate and go right along with it."

Smelser was perhaps the most disappointed in the outcome of the fiscal 1992 state budget, which included $90.1 million in new taxes to restorecuts to counties for education and to provide extra relief to needy jurisdictions and programs.

"It came through loud and clear that the public didn't want taxes and that government is bloated, and I agree," he said.

The revenue shortfall for next year was pegged at $192.2 million. Expanded taxes on cigarettes, food sales and capital gains -- investment income -- were implemented to balance the budget.

"We didn't reduce costs enough," said Smelser. "We should not have had a tax increase. We asked the locals to control salaries and funding, and now we're sending a lot back (to counties)."

More adjustments should have been made before the session began to address next year's projected shortfall, he said. The legislature is partly to blamefor discouraging the governor from proceeding with employee layoff plans, said Smelser.

"Now I think we'll have a much more difficult time next year for the 1993 budget" when a potential shortfall of $471 million has been projected, he said.

Tax plans intended to provide a more equitable collection and distribution of revenue and to raise money for transportation projects will be revisited later this year, as will the growth management plan. Legislative leaders have indicated more tax increases could be necessary next year.

LaMotte and Delegate Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll, said they were generally pleased with the legislature's balancing act, which included no layoffs.

"We did our best to maintain some modicum of services while holding the line on spending," said LaMotte. "We made severe cuts in the budget."

Dixon said the tax increase "was not significant in view of the kind of budget we had."

"It's the first year in my nine years we didn't have a huge surplus," said the House Appropriations Committee member. "Every previous year the budget has grown naturally by several hundred million dollars. This year it didn't. It's impossible to do new things with a budget like this."

Carroll legislators said the tight budget discouraged introduction of bills, especially those that involved substantial cost increases. In retrospect, that could have been beneficial, said Matthews.

"If not for the economic situation, there would have been more programs, we would have spent more money, and there'd be more government," he said.

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