House leaders get skittish as tax vote nears Some resign posts after ultimatum from Mitchell

March 24, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece | C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The House speaker yesterday ordered his chief lieutenants to vote for a half-billion-dollar tax bill or lose their leadership positions. Several resigned immediately to save him the trouble.

Among those who opposed the speaker was John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat and two-time former majority leader, who now chairs the Judiciary Committee, one of only six standing committees in the House.

These defections threatened not only to kill the major tax bill now pending before the House, but stood as a major challenge to Mr. Mitchell's leadership in the House.

With legislators fearing a remorseless anti-tax electorate, today's

scheduled votes on the budget and a tax package are a critical crossroads for them and the 1992 legislative session.

The tax plan would raise the gas tax, add a new income tax bracket for the wealthy, raise cigarette taxes and expand the items subject to the sales tax -- all of which would raise at least a half-billion dollars in new revenue.

On top of that, the bill gives local jurisdictions expanded authority to raise almost as much additional taxes themselves -- largely to offset huge cuts in state aid.

"This is the most important vote of the session, if it passes, because it will be used in the 1994 election and everybody knows it," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, the minority whip.

Knowing that some members of his House see any vote in favor of taxes as potentially career threatening, Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, ordered Democrats in his leadership -- committee chairmen, vice chairman, floor whips and minor functionaries -- to support him by voting "Yes."

But Mr. Arnick and fellow Baltimore County Democrat Kenneth H. Masters, who chairs a legislative oversight committee, told Mr. Mitchell "No," according to sources within the House leadership.

Mr. Mitchell, in turn, told them they would lose their positions in the House leadership unless they changed their minds, although such a sudden change probably would not occur until after the General Assembly adjourns in two weeks.

The ranks of "leadership" have been purposely expanded under recent House speakers so that any critical vote can come close to a winning margin on the strength of leadership votes alone.

With some legislators estimating that the vote on the tax bill could be six votes shy of the 71 required for passage, the speaker needs to wield all his power to achieve a victory.

Colleagues said that one of Mr. Mitchell's six standing committee chairmen, Judiciary's John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, has indicated he would vote "no." Such a transgression could cost him his chairmanship.

But Mr. Arnick maintained that he has not made up his mind. "I don't normally tell people how I'm going to vote," he said.

Several lower-ranking members of leadership sent formal letters of resignation.

"I don't need this kind of overriding pressure on casting a vote," wrote Del. Joseph Bartenfelder, D-Baltimore County, a deputy whip.

He said his vote "had nothing at all to do with the two Republican delegates from my district."

Others said that Republicans, many of whom are riding the anti-tax bandwagon with gusto, had everything to do with nervousness over the tax vote, including Mr. Bartenfelder's.

To be sure, those preparing to vote "no" had many reasons for doing so.

A 20-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes sealed his "no" vote, said Del. Michael J. Sprague, D-Charles. Mr. Sprague also offered his resignation.

Without the cigarette tax, he said, he might have been able to vote for the package "with a little gagging."

Mr. Mitchell's floor leader and chief vote-counter, Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, spent yesterday feverishly lobbying delegates and double-checking his vote-count list.

Meanwhile, members of the House plowed through 240 committee amendments to the governor's $12.5 billion budget for next year. They tentatively approved a budget reconciliation measure that transfers funds from one pot to another to keep the budget in balance and talked for more than two hours about the tax package.

"I've had people say, 'I think the bill is fine, but politics says I have to vote against it,' " Mr. Poole said of his conversations with fellow House leaders.

"OK, but I don't see how those people can call themselves leaders and stay in leadership positions.

"I'm sure we could lose some quality people from leadership, but we've got to get the job done," he added.

The tax package would raise about $264 million for the general treasury, about $175 million of which would be used to balance the budget.

The rest would be used to pay for several local aid programs, such as a $30 million "disparity grant" for Baltimore and five poor counties.

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