Senate OKs minor tax changes after marathon debate

March 17, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The Maryland Senate voted yesterday to take lawyers to the cleaners and then voted to take cleaners to the cleaners.

The jockeying was all part of a marathon floor debate on next year's state budget and the $245 million Senate tax package that would bring the spending plan into balance.

Despite the long hours -- the Senate argued from 11:30 6 p.m. and reconvened for a night session at 8 -- the lawmakers agreed to only minor changes in the spending and tax package reported to the floor by the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Senate leaders resisted all but a few of 26 proposed floor amendments, reducing the $12.5 billion budget by less than $1.5 million.

The biggest surprise came on the last vote before the dinner recess, when the Senate voted 23-22 against a committee proposal to extend the state's 5 percent sales tax to cover dry cleaning. But Senate leaders immediately maneuvered to have the vote reconsidered because the unexpected action threw the budget an estimated $10 million out of balance.

"I'd hate to send an unbalanced budget to the House," said Budget and Taxation Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery.

With a meal under their belts, the senators reconvened last night, and voted a second time on the tax on dry cleaning, and that time approved it, 24-23.

"[Sales tax] base broadening always hits somebody," said Senator Levitan, who personally had favored an increase in the llTC percent sales tax rate.

By one of the more lopsided margins of the day, the Senate also voted 29-14 to "tax" lawyers, approving a proposal from Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles, to levy a $250 biennial fee on all Maryland attorneys. The measure would raise an estimated $2.6 million a year.

"Mr. President, this is discriminatory," Senator Levitan complained half-heartedly. He and six other lawyers voted against the proposal. Four lawyers voted for it, and three, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's,abstained.

The long afternoon session started positively enough for conservatives who wanted deeper cuts to avoid raising taxes.

The second amendment of the day, by Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, cut $1 million from the State Lottery Agency's $9 million advertising budget.

After that, the pickings were slim. The lawmakers cut $475,685 by taking money from a state promotional office in Japan that development officials had already decided to close, and another $8,680 by stripping Maryland Handgun Roster Board members of daily expense payments.

But when the senators were asked to cut their own interim expense accounts by $1 million, they launched into the longest single debate of the day and ended up rejecting the proposal on a 23-23 tie vote.

Asked to cut on a sliding scale from 1 percent to 4 percent the salaries of every state employee earning $70,000 or more, they also declined.

Asked twice to trim the money lawmakers dispense to their constituents for scholarships, they twice declined.

Asked to cut the nearly $125,000 appropriated for the governor's Maryland You Are Beautiful program -- a program belittled by Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, as "pure fluff and puffery" -- the vote was 23-21 to keep the money in the budget.

But if senators refused to cut more deeply into state spending, they also refused to increase it.

Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore, tried to increase next year's proposed benefit for welfare recipients by $5 a month, from the proposed $401 to $406. Families of three received $406 a month until October, when a cash-starved state government temporarily reduced the monthly benefit to $377.

"Five dollars can mean the difference between going to the thrift store and getting some supplies and clothes," he said, urging his colleagues to "have a heart."

They didn't.

And Mr. Hughes also offered the last amendment to the budget, a revised proposal to raise the monthly welfare benefit by $3. That move failed, too.

Some proposed cuts with broad implications died by surprisingly close margins. A move by Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, to limit to six months the length of time persons with alcohol or drug addictions may be enrolled in the state's General Public Assistance welfare program -- a move that could have cut the enrollment by about one-third -- died 25-21.

An amendment that would have cut the number of assistant attorneys general from 252 to 227 failed on a 21-21 tie.

The Senate even rejected the "Eli Jacobs amendment," a proposal to levy a 50 percent tax on any profits exceeding $100 million that the Orioles' owner might receive if he sold the Baltimore franchise. The theory is that the value of the team has soared because the state built the club a new stadium.

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