Twelve-dimensional Chess

March 22, 1992|By JOHN W. FRECE

ANNAPOLIS. — Annapolis -- Baltimore lawmakers swear they won't vote for any tax increase this year unless they are assured the General Assembly also will approve a significant financial-aid package for the city.

Muscle-flexing legislators from wealthy Montgomery County say they no longer will stand for the city getting a windfall at their expense.

And, while they're at it, the suburban Washington lawmakers think as a matter of equity it is high time the state pays the same 100 percent subsidy for mass-transit operating costs for Montgomery and Prince George's counties that it currently pays for transit operations in Baltimore.

Some of the more traditional Democratic liberals in the General Assembly, meanwhile, believe the state needs a large tax increase this year to cover Maryland's budget deficit and, just as important, to assure it doesn't recur in future years. Governor Schaefer is clearly in that camp: For the second year in a row, he has proposed a plan that would bring in at least $700 million in new revenue by raising just about every tax the state levies.

Higher taxes, backers say, also could provide enough money to pay for programs for the city, or for ''magnet schools'' in Prince George's County, or to assure educational placements for disabled students, or for a variety of other worthy programs that are getting whacked in these tough budget times.

But the ground is shifting out from under those who support higher taxes.

Democrats who in past years could have been counted on to support such measures are suddenly gun-shy, scared into no-tax apoplexy by an anti-incumbent electorate. Some have even joined hands publicly with their Republican brethren, whom they see making political hay with their high-visibility, no-new-taxes stance.

It has left a legislature that normally marches in lockstep behind the House and Senate leadership sharply split between high-tax, some-tax and no-tax factions.

Is it any wonder, then, that as the 1992 General Assembly careens into its final two weeks the issue of greatest importance to taxpayers -- whether they are going to have to pay higher taxes -- has not been decided?

''This is twelve-dimensional chess,'' says Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat who, as a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has been in the middle of much of the tax/no-tax debate.

The divisions are everywhere.

Democrats, politically secure in previous years, suddenly find themselves under sharp attack from an aggressive Republican minority just waiting for a chance to become the Republican majority.

Montgomery County and Baltimore can't agree on what to do; Anne Arundel and some of the other suburban counties keep getting left out of the equation; and most everyone seems to be out to get Baltimore County. Why, they keep asking themselves, should we risk our political careers by voting for higher taxes that could benefit the entire state, including Baltimore County, if Baltimore County legislators won't help out?

Need proof? Look at last week's Senate vote approving a $245 million tax plan. Six of the seven senators from Baltimore County voted ''nay.''

General Assembly leaders tried to avert such a factional breakdown. For months, House and Senate leaders met publicly, and then privately, in an attempt to work out a single plan. Finally, they gave up. The two houses are not only going their separate ways, but factions within each house are also going in different directions.

Since last fall, for example, Senate Budget and Taxation chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, has been pushing for a straight increase in the state's 5 percent sales tax. Raising it to 5 1/2 percent, or even to 6 percent would be politically easier than expanding the sales-tax base to include currently untaxed services or products, he argued. It also could bring the state a lot of money fast.

But both Governor Schaefer and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell opposed Mr. Levitan's idea, arguing that the only way to assure long-term growth of sales-tax revenue was to expand what is taxed.

Opposing groups are flourishing within each house as well.

In the Senate, a rump group composed mostly of Baltimore County senators and conservatives from rural counties developed their own list of spending cuts after being excluded from leadership meetings where a big tax plan was being shaped. No one bothered to ask the group about its recommendations, however, until after that big tax plan was defeated in committee.

In the House, Speaker Mitchell and Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, who are conservative Democrats from the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland, respectively, have spent the session trying to put the brakes on higher taxes by insisting on deeper cuts in state spending and reforms of expensive entitlement programs such as Medicaid.

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