Lawmakers' quest for a balanced budget continues Extended session has produced arguments, but as yet no results.

April 08, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- After a one-day recess, Maryland's lawmakers were to return tomorrow to try to pass a balanced budget.

They began their extraordinary extended session yesterday the way they ended their regular 90-day session at midnight Monday: arguing.

They argued over whether they should keep working, or take a break to cool off and rest up.

They argued over whether they should pass their so-called "doomsday" budget and let the impact of drastic cuts sink in, or try again to pass a tax increase that would make those cuts unnecessary.

Mostly, they argued over how they got into this mess, failing for the first time since the current process was established in 1916 ++ to pass a budget before the regular session ended.

"I just think what we did was a disgrace," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Lawmakers had hoped to be on their way home by now, or back at their real jobs, or off on some long-planned vacation. Instead, they were back in their State House seats, looking like a bunch of kids ordered to stay after school.

"I think the public is offended," said a chagrined Charles County Sen. James C. Simpson.

There was plenty of talk -- from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who addressed a joint session; from the House and Senate's Democratic leaders; from Republicans; and even from back-benchers of both parties.

They talked about flexibility, about looking at budget and tax issues in some fresh way. But there was little evidence that any positions had changed.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, wasted no time urging his colleagues to "uphold the Senate's position."

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, said, "The House did its job," suggesting the budget failed for lack of leadership in the Senate.

Mr. Schaefer, trying to mediate, warned that the consequences of inaction are serious.

He said at least 1,000 state jobs and another 2,000 jobs in local governments would be lost if a budget is passed containing another $250 million in spending reductions -- an option lawmakers refer to as the "doomsday" budget.

" 'Doomsday' must not be the final budget," Mr. Schaefer declared.

He said local governments would be hit particularly hard under ++ such a scenario, potentially losing another $95 million in state aid for schools, police protection, community colleges and other important services.

Medical care for the poor would suffer; private colleges would lose state subsidies and state parks would be closed.

The governor invited House and Senate leaders to begin working with him immediately to find common ground. He urged them to stay at the task until they are finished.

Per diem expenses for the 188 lawmakers alone could cost the state more than $17,000 a day. But Mr. Mitchell said he would ask lawmakers to commute to Annapolis to save money, and Mr. Miller told senators that the extra staff hired for the session was going home, and no expenses for room and board would be paid.

Legislative leaders also decided to give their weary troops a day off, telling them to report back for duty tomorrow morning, when there may be some new plan to consider.

"What are we going to do [Thursday]?" demanded Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's.

"I have no idea," Mr. Miller can didly replied.

Once the bare-bones budget is passed and the extended session ends, Mr. Schaefer said he wants to call the legislature immediately back into special session. He wants lawmakers to enact a tax package to replace the "doomsday" cuts and pass the state's $350 million capital construction program for next year, which also died when the lawmakers failed to pass an operating budget.

But many lawmakers couldn't figure out why the governor thinks will be easier to get a tax package now than it was during the regular session. If anything has changed, many said, it's that the two houses have dug in their heels even further.

As for passing the budget, lawmakers doubted that either house could muster a majority to vote for a "doomsday" measure without ironclad assurances that a substitute package of new tax revenues would be subsequently enacted.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, said that putting the "doomsday" into effect may be the only way to build public support for taxes that could break the deadlock.

"Do it," she urged Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat who is one of the House's tax conferees. "It's unconscionable and immoral, but you almost have to do it. I have Republicans in my county taking credit for getting a budget passed without taxes. Let them take the credit [for the additional cuts]."

But House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, who led the anti-tax rebellion in the House of Delegates, said the so-called "doomsday" list was merely a scare tactic devised by Democratic leaders to leverage support for higher taxes.

"It's just a staff-driven list of the most awful things you can find," she said, suggesting that a more acceptable list of additional spending reductions could be compiled.

She said if the legislature has to raise taxes at all, it should raise only enough to cover the budget deficit -- not to pay for several new local aid programs that primarily benefit Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. These were part of both House and Senate versions of the budget.

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