As public raises roof, House members defend tax-increase vote

March 29, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau John Frece contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- When the tax protest phone calls turned from abusive and vulgar to threatening, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. asked the state police to answer his office phones.

Callers said they felt duped and double-crossed.

Hundreds called after the House voted, under Mr. Mitchell's forceful direction, to raise taxes in Maryland by $500 million a year and even more if local governments exercise their new taxing authority.

Advocates winced when new taxes were totaled: 20 cents on a package of cigarettes, 5 cents on a gallon of gasoline, a sales tax on currently untaxed items and a higher income tax on the wealthy.

Opponents of the spending plan gleefully added the taxes up to a round $1 billion, hoping to stoke the fires of discontent even higher.

All this, they said, from a speaker who had made himself out to be the last best defense against tax increases. Because he had talked about restructuring and downsizing and cost containment in state government, callers and even some in the House felt betrayed when he used his considerable power to pass a bill that raises taxes substantially.

Mr. Mitchell pointed out that the Assembly had cut $1 billion before it met this year and that the governor had presented a budget that needed $700 million to remain in balance. That he had cut that figure substantially did not matter to the callers.

"I was the turncoat. I was the traitor," the Kent County Democrat said. He had signaled that some of these taxes would be unavoidable. In the end, he said, he chose what he saw as the responsible course. "You crunch the numbers as low as you can and then you go with it."

If the voters' scorn were not enough, Assembly leaders must now cope with the frayed nerves that always come when the House and Senate must work out compromises between their budget and tax proposals.

The two sides were stymied almost immediately Friday night when the Senate refused to accept House positions on relatively minor matters. House negotiators walked out and refused to meet yesterday.

Under Assembly procedure, the state's budget must be passed by the 83rd legislative day -- which turns out to be tomorrow or the Assembly's term must be extended beyond its 90-day deadline a week from today by executive order of the governor.

The risk for both sides is that delay could threaten the already shaky coalition supporting the bill.

And if the budget is not passed in timely fashion, the Assembly will likely get more calls from voters hurling charges of incompetence, legislative paralysis and worse.

Mr. Mitchell's private, morning-after experience with angry callers surprised no one. And some were even gleeful about last week's House action.

"It was a very defining vote," said a smiling Kevin Igoe, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. Visibly elated by a vote that might identify vulnerable targets, GOP leaders were already planning their strategy for the next election.

But several legislators seemed to draw strength from their votes in favor of the package. Some said they were willing to risk their office on the belief that their constituents would make a reasoned assessment of their votes.

"Some people say they want all of the things state government provides, but they don't drop from heaven," said Del. Betty Workman, D-Allegany. "The state of Maryland doesn't run on malarkey and good wishes. If I have to be defeated, I'd rather be defeated on something where I felt I did the right thing."

Del. J. Ernest Bell II, D-St. Mary's, said he watched colleagues on the budget committees work for months to cut spending and thinking about reasonable new taxes.

"One lady told me I had to be more innovative. 'You have to pass a tax that nobody has to pay.' " Someone actually said that. He voted for the package, he said, because he trusted the assessments of his colleagues on the budget committees.

But many delegates said they voted "no" because the House failed to follow through on its promise of restructuring state government -- a promise made by Mr. Mitchell, among others.

Del. Marsha G. Perry, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said her suburban constituents have little tolerance for more taxes. "They've lost confidence in our ability to spend their money on the projects they were told they would get. They've seen taxes paid for one thing go into other uses."

"Our mission this year was to get ahold of a growing structural defect -- a government growing faster than our ability to pay for it," said Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, the minority leader. "We did not do that."

In the past, Democratic leaders would have arranged to have the House and Senate vote for a package of new taxes big enough to cover all contingencies -- so that they would not have to ask for another tax vote before the 1994 election. Their inability to do that this time was attributed to both the angry phone calls and the increased power of the Republican minority.

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