Ruben collects applause, boos for tax vote Montgomery senator kills state-aid plan

March 15, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- When state Sen. Ida Ruben voted "No" and killed a $430 million tax bill last Monday, she risked as much as $35 million in state aid for her county.

But she also was wielding the sword of parochialism.

"The money won't go to anybody else either," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Legislators have always tried to bring home the bacon -- public works projects or a stream of dollars for schools, public safety and welfare.

But this year, some lawmakers are just as worried about what the other guy is getting. They'd just as soon cut a neighbor's project as get one of their own if it plays back home.

"A lot of people here have very strong regional feelings this year," understates House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

It was regional feeling that unwound the year's most delicate compromise last week and threw the latest attempt to balance Maryland's deficit-ridden budget into disarray.

Aggressive parochialism is strongest this year in affluent Montgomery County, whose lawmakers occasionally resent what they see as a shakedown by the rest of the state.

When she voted "No" last Monday in the Budget and Taxation Committee, Senator Ruben said she was holding out for another $5 million to $10 million in state education aid for Montgomery.

The money had been promised and then withdrawn as the tax package was being shaped, she said.

In the past, a slight of this sort might have been tolerable if the ultimate result were sweet enough.

Not this year. When colleagues urged her to take the best deal available in a no-new-taxes atmosphere, Senator Ruben held her ground and killed the bill.

A day later, the fragile coalition that supported the $430 million deal came apart. A compromise approved with Senator Ruben's support added up to only $245 million. A lot of that money came from aid to local governments.

"She voted against it when it favored her county and she voted for it when her county didn't get diddly squat," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore.

Mr. Lapides voted against it, too, on the theory that Montgomery was getting too much.

Ms. Ruben's tactics got mixed reviews.

Her colleagues in Annapolis thought she had nailed down the 1992 "Box of Rocks" award for inept legislating.

The most charitable assessment came from a House committee chairman, who said, "Ida can't add."

"It was pretty dumb move," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Though he also hails from Montgomery, Mr. Levitan couldn't persuade his colleague to accept the best deal Montgomery had gotten in years. A former state senator thought the parable of political greed applied: "Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered."

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said she was expecting $700,000 for highway projects before the Ruben vote. Now she'll get none.

Back home, though, Senator Ruben was a heroine to Montgomery-firsters.

"The perception is positive," said former County Executive Sidney Kramer, who also served in the Senate. "People feel Montgomery has not gotten adequate recognition of our needs and our contributions."

Blair Lee IV, a newspaper columnist, real estate agent and former county lobbyist whose one-man campaign for Montgomery parochialism now has a legion of adherents, said Senator Ruben showed uncommon backbone -- especially in a Montgomery politician.

"She didn't blink," he said. "The pols here are being held accountable and fighting for their own survival. They're operating out of self-interest for once and not looking for a hand grenade to dive on."

Mr. Lee and his followers think Montgomery legislators have let the rest of the state rob them blind. To them, a fair deal is more important than the dollars, and people in the county are hungry for that kind of attitude.

That hunger wasn't satisfied on a fast-food budget. The lunch could cost the county $35 million or more.

Some lawmakers argue that Senator Ruben's vote and the hasty retreat from $430 million to $245 million simply revealed the lack of support for new taxes this year.

Mr. Levitan concedes that his bill faced a battle on the Senate floor. Some senators say the votes simply weren't there -- with or without the extra $5 million Ms. Ruben wanted for Montgomery.

With anti-incumbency palpable, with Republicans pushing for no taxes at all and the election of 1994 not far away, this year's assembly is resisting new taxes with unaccustomed fervor. While Senator Ruben doesn't share the anti-tax zeal, her vote played to the prevailing climate.

Mr. Levitan had been hoping for a compromise with the House, which was preparing a much less ambitious tax package. He had figured on something in between.

"An opportunity was lost. We might not have gotten there, but it was worth a try," he said.

Either way, Senator Ruben's vote was a defining point for this session.

"It's either uphill or downhill from that point, depending on your point of view," said a Prince George's County delegate.

Senator Levitan said the support he sees for Senator Ruben's position in Montgomery County is distressing. He said he put the bill together with several things in mind: the need to assemble enough votes to pass it -- and the needs of his home county.

Coming out of his committee, the bill probably gave too much money to Baltimore, he said. That problem and others could have been corrected if the process had continued, he said.

"Now, the newspapers back home say Ida played hardball. I think it was sandlot," he said. "Why in the world would you throw away $35 million?

"If you're playing the game you at least want to get out of the locker room onto the field. We never got on the field."

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