ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's General Assembly flirted with failure yesterday.
With less than three days to go before tomorrow night's scheduled adjournment, legislators finally inched close to an agreement on next year's state budget.
But they remained miles apart on the tax package that leaders in both houses want to eliminate separate deficits of approximately $250 million in both this year's and next year's state budgets.
If a compromise cannot be reached on taxes, or if a compromise is agreed upon but cannot win enough votes to pass both houses, then a long list of additional budget reductions that would curtail government services at both the state and local levels could go into effect.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, the two houses completed their work last night around the dinner hour and adjourned until tonight, when they will hold a rare Sunday session.
But before the two houses formally convene today, House and Senate budget conferees are expected to discuss which specific state programs should be on the hit list in case no tax increases are passed -- a list generally referred to by lawmakers as the "doomsday" budget.
The legislature found itself so paralyzed last night that House and Senate leaders said they feared they could not pass a budget balanced with taxes or pass one balanced with a "doomsday" list of additional reductions.
Such a stalemate could prevent passage of the budget by
tomorrow's midnight constitutional deadline. That would force the General Assembly into an extended session at which no issue other than the budget could be considered. Any legislation still pending when the regular session ends, including the state's $350 million capital construction budget for next year, would perish.
In the midst of this budgetary chaos, members of committees not directly involved in the fiscal issues continued to pass and kill other legislation. One House committee that voted yesterday to give Maryland an official "state dinosaur."
Similarly, the full House and Senate debated and voted on bills unrelated to the budget, such as a bill passed by the Senate that would require men's and women's bathrooms in certain new public buildings to have equal numbers of fixtures. But the Senate spent most of yesterday debating tax issues.
Worried that the omnibus, half-billion-dollar tax bill passed by the House was too big for the Senate to swallow, Senate leaders trimmed the package down and chopped it into three, more edible-size bills.
But even that strategy barely worked.
The first bill, which would raise $200 million in new taxes just to balance the budget, passed 27-20, just three votes more than the 24 required for passage.
The second bill was even more controversial. It calls for raising $47 million in additional taxes to pay for a $30 million "disparity" grant to Baltimore and five poor rural counties, and $17 million to educate disabled children. But it also calls for permitting the state's 24 major jurisdictions to raise their maximum piggyback income tax rate from 50 percent to 60 percent, a shift of authority that many individual senators vehemently opposed.
When the green and red votes flashed up on the electronic tote board on the walls of the Senate chamber, it appeared the bill would fail. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.,
D-Prince George's, delayed locking in the vote while Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, stalled, waiting and hoping for someone to switch from a red no vote to a green yes.
The bill finally passed, 24-23, but only with the support of all nine Baltimore senators, including renegade Julian L. Lapides, who rarely votes for tax increases, and Ralph M. Hughes, whose vote against the same bill two days ago nearly killed it.
The Senate then voted, 25-22, for the third bill, which (combined with one provision of the second bill) would raise Maryland's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax to 24.5-cents on May 1.
After all that work, it took the House Ways and Means Committee about 10 minutes to unanimously reject all three bills, throwing them along with the House's omnibus tax package on the table for the tax conferees to sort out.
The tense deadlock left legislators drained. Many rank-and-file lawmakers uninvolved in the budget and tax discussions wondered whether they should pack their bags to go home Tuesday.