Assembly hopes for Closing Night on Opening Day Budget drama could be nearing its final act

April 03, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- In a daylong display of political posturing on Maryland's budget and taxes, the Senate and House yesterday backed away from agreement, shunned cooperation, and simply refused to settle their differences.

By last night, however, legislative leaders were talking informally again, raising hopes that a resolution of a marathon budget and tax struggle might occur before Monday's scheduled midnight adjournment.

Because of the time it takes to physically move budget and tax bills through both houses, allowing time for debate and amendments, today is generally considered the critical one for a decision.

Some House leaders said last night that many lawmakers are now scared about what could happen to the state -- and their political careers -- if the General Assembly fails to enact a budget by Monday's deadline and is forced to extend the session.

"I think it's the result of a day's worth of the vision of the abyss," Del. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, explained.

If the budget is not adopted on time, the state's capital construction budget for next year could be lost, as well as any other legislation pending behind the budget bill. In addition, some lawmakers believe the state could jeopardize its coveted triple-A bond rating.

Yesterday's maneuvering was so chaotic that when a Senate committee chose to pass a revised tax and budget plan, it couldn't even muster the votes it needed on the floor to pass an important local aid bill that was part of the package.

Leaders in both houses worried that even if they agree on a compromise, their colleagues are so scared of voting for taxes, or so angry because there isn't enough in the package for the home folks, that they may not be able to get the votes in their respective chambers.

Top lawmakers were scheduled to join Gov. William Donald Schaefer at a breakfast meeting at the governor's mansion this morning to help resolve the issues.

It won't be the governor's first intervention. He got the sides together Tuesday, and Senate and House conferees appeared But that sense of cooperation quickly collapsed.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, told the House conferees on Wednesday that if they wouldn't consider making a proposed increase in the income tax for wealthy Marylanders temporary, there was no reason to continue talking.

The delegates said there was no reason to continue talking, and left.

The Senate responded yesterday with a revised plan that broke the House package into three separate bills. They were:

* A $200 million tax increase to balance both the Fiscal Year 1992 and 1993 budgets. The plan includes a 20-cent-a-pack boost in Maryland's cigarette tax, closing a variety of sales tax loopholes on snack foods and other products, some new tax enforcement and compliance measures, and expansion of the sales tax base to cover previously untaxed residential security services.

Mr. Levitan maintained that tax package was as "non-controversial" as possible, noting it no longer includes a proposed tax on dry cleaning or on other services many Marylanders use.

* A nickel-a-gallon increase in the state's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to get the state's stalled transportation program moving. The revised Senate plan, however, would not include a controversial titling tax increase on "gas guzzler" cars that was part of the House proposal.

* A "perks package" that would send a $30 million grant to Baltimore and five poor counties, restore $17 million for educational placements for disabled students, and add a sixth penny to the gasoline tax increase that would finance state assumption of mass transit operating costs now borne by Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

The bill also would permit the 24 major jurisdictions to raise their maximum piggyback income tax rate from 50 percent to 60 percent to offset $250 million in reductions in state aid, but would not expand any other local taxing authority as proposed by the House.

Gone from the bill were proposals that were part of original House and Senate plans to send more money to Baltimore and Prince George's County for police protection, and to send more money to Prince George's for "magnet schools."

"What this means to Maryland taxpayers is that they don't get hit particularly hard," Mr. Levitan said.

But when the package reached the Senate floor late yesterday afternoon, the "perks package" unexpected failed on a 23-23 tie.

One Senate leader, Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, abstained. Another, Finance Committee Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, voted no. Each said he opposed extension of the greater piggyback tax authority to his home county.

Two Baltimore senators, Julian L. Lapides and Ralph M. Hughes, also voted no, even though the package would have sent at least $24 million in state aid to the city.

Today in Annapolis

10 a.m.: House and Senate convene, State House.

House and Senate committees meet to discuss or vote on bills on an unscheduled basis.

There are four days remaining in the regular 1992 General Assembly session.

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