Makes Presence Felt


April 14, 1991|By JOHN FRECE

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis.-- The two Democratic delegates from Prince George's County were almost giddy with excitement. Those bungling Republicans had done it again, and they could barely wait to stick it to them.

It was mid-March. The day before, the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee had agreed to borrow as much as $28 million from the quasi-governmental Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund to balance next year's budget and to avoid raising taxes by eliminating Maryland's tax preference on capital gains. It was an idea (which collapsed less than 24 hours after it was proposed) championed by Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel.

But to Delegates Charles J. Ryan and James C. Rosapepe, respectively the chairmen of the House Appropriations Committee and a Ways and Means subcommittee on taxes, it was a chance to demonstrate yet again the differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Borrowing from MAIF, chortled Mr. Ryan, is the type of budgeting that got New York City into trouble.

"I think they shifted the tax burden off millionaires and onto working people," gloated Mr. Rosapepe, who pushed for repeal of the capital gains break in the House. "It's a classic Republican sort of tax plan."

But was it? Was a borrowing plan proposed by Mr. Cade, but also backed by seven of the 11 Democrats on the committee, including the chairman and vice chairman, truly a Republican plan? Or was it just another chance for House Democrats to score partisan points as a rejoinder to last fall's election?

You recall that election: when voters complained about the "big spending" ways of the Democratic governor and gave a Republican unknown 40 percent of the vote; when voters replaced Democrats with Republicans as the county executives in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties; and when voters increased the number of Republicans in the 141-member House from 16 to 25, and in the 47-member Senate from 7 to 9.

Republicans, at least those in the House, thought the election was the beginning of something big. So did the Democrats.

As a result, the 1991 General Assembly turned into one of the most partisan sessions in recent memory, House criticism of Mr. Cade's MAIF borrowing plan being only one example.

Democratic leaders in the House were forced to fend off Republican challenges to House rules that tend to limit debate, to a state budget and tax plan shaped largely by Democrats, and even to the redistricting process now under way, which undoubtedly will have a bearing on Republican efforts to turn Maryland into a true two-party state.

Bills, amendments and issues -- some as seemingly non-controversial as increasing efficiency in government -- took on a partisan tint no one could have imagined in Annapolis in prior years.

These were not conflagrations, but brush fires, easily doused by the battalions of political firefighters the Democratic majority can still summon. When House Republicans mounted a feeble, 11th-hour attempt to cut the budget, ostensibly to avoid raising taxes, their suggestions were smothered by votes of 114-15, 99-18, 102-13, 98-8, and so on. One even died by voice vote.

The Republicans claimed the Democrats missed their opportunity to scale back the size of government, but the Democrats claimed the Republicans wanted it both ways: to spare government programs from the budget ax, only to complain after it was too late that not enough was done.

"They're grandstanding," complained Democrat Thomas H. Hattery of Frederick, saying all the Republican budget cuts together did not add up to enough money to offset the tax increase they were trying to avoid.

But the House Democrats were worried enough about what the Republicans were doing and saying this session that they decided to exclude the minority leader and minority whip from meetings of the Democratic House leadership -- a sure sign the Republicans had arrived.

Republican efforts to place GOP delegates on specific House committees also were sometimes ignored by the House speaker. And the Democrats felt threatened enough that they resurrected their dormant party caucus and began plotting strategy together.

"The Democrats took seriously the message of the last election, or one of the messages, which is, we have to start thinking and acting more as Democrats in terms of trying to express an approach to government that is consistent with what the middle class majority of the state wants," said Mr. Rosapepe.

To show their concern for the plight of the citizenry in these recessionary times, for instance, the Democratic caucus announced it had set up a special payroll deduction plan so lawmakers could divert part of their pay to the state treasury.

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