Has Baltimore lost its edge in the General Assembly? Losses of population, wealth are weakening the city's position. Analysis

April 26, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

The 1963 session of the Maryland General Assembly was already into its frenzied final hours when the $20 million gas tax plan -- considered well on its way to passage -- began to sputter.

No one doubted that the state needed the money to patch crumbling roads. But there was a problem: all the money was to go to the state highway fund, violating the venerable tradition that gave Baltimore 30 cents of every $1 raised in gasoline taxes.

This precedent angered city lawmakers, who wielded immense power in the General Assembly. They dug in an threatened a filibuster. When the talks dragged on past the mandatory midnight deadline, the clocks were turned back.

Finally, a deal was struck that gave the state its $20 million -- but only after it agreed to maintain the interstate highways in the city, work that City Hall had been doing.

In the history of legislative battles, it rates a footnote. But observers of Maryland's political warfare wonder if the city, which is losing population and wealth as fast as suburbs can be built, could muster the strength today to win such a engagement.

With next year's redistricting sure to rob the city of several seats in the General Assembly, Baltimore's power is waning while its needs are growing most acute.

The city is still a significant player in Annapolis, of course, and has promising leaders moving into key positions. But, thanks to population losses, the departure of experienced players and changes in the state constitution, the city is no longer Maryland's political giant.

"There has been an erosion of power," said Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College and a long time-student of Maryland politics.

THE BIG GUY HAS HELPED

"We don't have as many individuals in high places as in the past. Has it hurt us badly? I don't think so. In part, Schaefer has helped compensate for that," Smith said.

Mayor of Baltimore for 15 years before moving to Annapolis, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has helped guard city interests. But his squabbles with lawmakers -- and with the current Baltimore mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke -- do not bode well for the city. Moreover, Schaefer's final term ends in three years, and no city residents are prominent on the succession list.

Meanwhile, political influence is flowing steadily to the collar counties surrounding Washington, especially the fast-growing Prince George's and Montgomery.

Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist who has studied state government for the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said similar shifts are under way across the country, as urban areas lose out to more conservative suburbs in the battle for votes and residents.

The trend is particularly hard on Baltimore, which must compete not only with its own growing suburbs but with those of Washington as well.

Montgomery County, which gained nearly 180,000 residents in the last decade, overtook Baltimore in the 1990 census as the largest jurisdiction in the state. The census showed Baltimore lost about 50,000 over the decade, winding up with 750,000 of the state's 4.8 million residents.

Most lawmakers and city leaders say the city did as well as could be expected in the General Assembly session that ended April 8. The state, at Schaefer's request, agreed to take over the operation of the City Jail and stepped up its funding of the zoo. Nearly $10 million in aid for the city also came through in the final weeks.

But the city wanted a fundamental reform of the state's tax system to help high-tax, poor jurisdictions such as Baltimore. It also wanted the state to take over some functions of its costly court system. It got neither, largely because the state was facing its most serious financial crisis in decades.

"It's like the stock market. It's up and it's down. Right now we are in a valley," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who has represented Baltimore in the Senate or House of Delegates since 1963.

ARITHMETIC OF POWER

Some of it is simple arithmetic. In the 1960s, Baltimore was home to almost 1 million of the state's 3.3 million residents. With a constitution that made Baltimore the only jurisdiction with more than one senator, the city held 21 percent of the Senate and 27 percent of the House.

Voting as a bloc, the city's delegations commanded almost half the votes needed to pass a law.

Today, city residents occupy 19 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the House seats. And that is about to drop further.

The state's political map will soon be redrawn to reflect the 199Census. Baltimore's vote count in the General Assembly, effective with the 1994 election, could dip to 15 percent of the Senate and 17 percent of the House. Baltimore's delegation would represent only a third of the majority needed to pass a bill in the Senate.

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