Assembly mired in crisis finds right choices elusive

October 09, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun John W. Frece of The Sun's Annapolis Bureau and Thom Loverro of the metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly is trying to deal with Maryland's fiscal crisis under the daily pressure of budget-cut protests here and around the state.

Some legislators say that in this atmosphere, it will be difficult to avoid ill-considered solutions.

The all-points lobbying campaign mounted by pro-tax advocates the poor "certainly is having some impact," according to Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County. "It's not a time for thoughtful analysis of the problem."

The heat is felt in the Senate as well.

"The smart thing to do around here," Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore, said sarcastically during a debate yesterday on the Senate floor, "is if the schoolchild can't get off school and lobby, then let's take care of all the people [instead] who came down here to lobby."

In other words, take care of the squeaky wheel.

With a budget hole as deep as $450 million this fiscal year and twice as deep next year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proposed deep program cuts and the firing of more than 1,700 state workers. He is required by law to balance the state's budget.

But legislators struggling to find alternatives to protect Marylanders are running a gantlet.

Inflamed by the governor's proposals, as many as 300 citizens were on hand yesterday morning to plead their case to senators and delegates as they walked into their chambers.

"The next drug addict you see may be in your living room," warned a sign protesting more than $11 million in cuts from nTC residential drug-treatment programs.

A young man in knee-high, fringe-topped boots stood with the words "Tax Me" spelled out in adhesive tape across the back of his camouflage-colored T-shirt. However, many legislators think that this young man may have been both the beginning and the end of the "Tax Me" movement.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, perhaps the most implacable foe of new taxes in the Assembly, says Maryland faces complicated problems that should be managed in an orderly fashion.

Delegate Sauerbrey, the Republican minority leader, agrees with the speaker's call for orderliness, but blames Governor Schaefer for putting the Assembly in a difficult position.

"The governor's timing, when he announced the cuts, was not an accident," she said. "The public back home, all the people saying his cuts are not acceptable, say 'You guys are down there [for the special session on congressional redistricting.] While you're in town, why don't you take care of that [the budget crisis]?' "

Mr. Mitchell acknowledged that seeing a gallery full of grim, armed state troopers was a bit scary. But not scary enough to deflect him from the job at hand, he insisted yesterday.

"They're more visible and more focused," he said, comparing this special session's protesters with those encountered during the Assembly's regular winter meetings. But, he added, "it doesn't pressure me and it doesn't pressure the House.

"We're going to play it step by step. I told the House this morning that we're going to finish our spending studies and hold some public hearings as we have been promising."

Mr. Mitchell had come to Annapolis for the special redistricting session vowing to leave budget matters until January, when the Assembly convenes in regular session.

While Delegate James M. Harkins, R-Harford, says he has no doubt the public approves of the Assembly's attempt to save state troopers' jobs, taxpayers have not turned out in large numbers so far. Nevertheless, Delegate Harkins sees little appetite for higher taxes.

As of last Friday, his office phones in Harford County and in

Annapolis have logged more than 100 constituent calls, only three of which were from people who thought new or higher taxes were the right solution.

"Most of them oppose the state police cuts or the cuts in medevac helicopter service," he said, "but they didn't want to balance the budget with new taxes. They felt there was sufficient fat to save the troopers and medevac."

Delegate Salima Siler Marriott says she welcomes the demonstrations.

"I walk this way because I want to see them," the Baltimore Democrat said. "They affirm my conviction that I'm right." Ms. Marriott wants a tax increase to save social programs and to spread the pain of budget deficits beyond state employees and those who need state services.

General Assembly members, she says, can get isolated. They should see the fear in people's eyes. They should hear the stories of pain from people threatened by Governor Schaefer's plan. Her point of view was pushed from a number of different quarters yesterday.

The Maryland Catholic Conference issued a statement asserting that the governor's proposal, if allowed to stand, amounts to "a dramatic setback for moral governance."

An ecumenical leaders' group, in cooperation with the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council and clergy of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, announced three days of special prayer for the poor and sick of Maryland.

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