Political fear leads to stalemate Lawmakers don't like their budget choices: Doomsday or taxes. @

April 08, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- When the governor showed lawmakers a bread-and-water budget three months ago as a warning to those who opposed raising taxes, Republicans called it a scare tactic.

While GOP lawmakers might have endorsed the sobering plan, they figured Democratic powerbrokers weren't serious about it and would never allow it to pass. They knew Democratic leaders would push a tax increase through.

But both sides underestimated the Republicans' power to stymie and derail a legislative process that had subjugated them for a generation.

And "doomsday" or something even worse may be at hand.

The Republican-driven, anti-tax sentiment left Maryland government without a budget and its befuddled legislature without a clue about how to get one.

Setting aside sheer economic stress as a cause for the impasse, the Assembly's paralysis was born of political fear -- fear of defeat at the polls. The fear was particularly palpable for legislators from rural areas and Baltimore County, where they perceive anti-tax sentiment is highest.

With Democrats exchanging charges and Republicans gloating over their unexpected success, the Assembly embarked yesterday on an uncertain search for a way out.

Some members were openly pessimistic about their ability to pass even the doomsday budget.

They think there's probably enough opposition from the poorer jurisdictions who need state aid to keep a no-tax budget in limbo.

House and Senate leaders started shutting off food and lodging allowances to exert pressure on their members to do something.

Adding to the uncertainty, some county fiscal analysts were warning that even the doomsday budget is based on unrealistically high forecasts of the revenue this economy will produce in the coming fiscal year.

But more than political partisanship brought the stalemate. Senators blamed the intransigence of the delegates and the delegates returned the favor. Lawmakers in both houses blamed the stubbornness of their own leaders, criticizing their refusal to listen or compromise. They blamed parochialism and greed -- but always someone else's.

All of this stood in stark contrast to the opening confidence of the Democratic leadership 90 days ago.

Top Democrats calculated that a tax bill could be passed this year, as in other years, by adding enough "goodies," in the form of special local aid packages, to win the votes they needed.

These additional factors were part of the chemistry:

* The New Parochialism: Though lawmakers were well aware that the state was in real trouble, the old horse trading and pork barrel instincts were alive and well.

And they had a new dimension. It wasn't enough to win for your own county -- you had to keep the other guy from getting something, too.

The parochial hand was overplayed on occasion: Having alienated every part of the state except the three most populous and powerful jurisdictions, fiscal leaders abandoned a no-pork pledge and tacked a $4.25 million baseball stadium onto the capital budget for Prince George's County.

"That's when it became really offensive," said Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles.

For this and other reasons, senators such as Mr. Simpson said no to the tax package.

* A leadership gap: Having asked for as much as $700 million in new taxes at the start of the session, Governor Schaefer deferred almost entirely to the Assembly in the budget-making process.

He had been rebuffed last year in a similar bid for higher taxes and judged, probably accurately, that the Assembly had to carry the ball itself this year.

Finally, the arguments he and the presiding officers of the legislature offered were undermined every day by the political death threat posed by anti-tax forces.

* Overconfidence: A pliant Assembly had too much confidence in the saving power of leaders who had always pulled out solutions in the past.

This year, though, there was no last-minute miracle.

After opposing other budget alternatives that required new taxes, one senator from Baltimore County seemed to recognize on the session's final day that his intransigence had taken him to a position he found uncomfortable.

"Wait a minute. I can't vote for the doomsday budget," he told a colleague.

By then, though, it was too late.

And now, the question is, will doomsday be the brightest available tomorrow?

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