Budget deal is on the way, lawmakers say Extended legislative session to meet after baseball break

April 09, 1992|By Laura Lippman and Marina Sarris | Laura Lippman and Marina Sarris,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- Charting lawmakers' progress as they work out a budget and tax compromise is like trying to capture a flower's blossoming -- only time-lapse photography can pick up the tiny movements.

But Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders insisted yesterday that there has been progress, and they said an accord could be reached in days.

The full legislature was to try again today as the first extended session in 76 years was set to resume after a one-day hiatus.

The same issues that dogged the tax package in the final days of the regular General Assembly session -- income tax rates for corporations and wealthy people, a special tax on gas-guzzling cars, an expanded sales tax -- are still on the table.

The state must approve at least $260 million in new taxes or cut that amount from an already Spartan $12.5 billion budget for 1993.

The cuts would hurt local governments, public schools, parks, government workers and medical care for the poor.

When lawmakers couldn't agree on a package by the end of the regular session Monday night, the legislature automatically began an extended session at which it must pass a budget.

The absence of a deadline now has inverted the usual last-minute strategies that tax opponents threatened successfully at the close of the regular session. Filibusters or other stalling tactics are moot, because a special session has no set expiration date.

So the budget has gained a new momentum, as legislators vTC realize they can do it now, or they can do it later -- but they have to do it sometime.

The governor is acting as the marriage counselor in this dispute, trying to convince the two chambers that they're really not that far apart and that they can be reconciled.

"It's interesting to sit in the middle and watch," the governor said. "They were so close, they didn't know how close they were and how close they are. And anything could tip it either way. I think it's tipping toward getting it over with."

Some constituents aren't happy with the delay. After learning that most legislators took yesterday off to attend "Legislative Appreciation Night" at the Orioles baseball game, a prankster left off some "Legislative Appreciation Night parking passes" at the State House.

Inscribed on the back of the passes were these instructions: "1. Leave Maryland. 2. Park Anywhere. 3. Don't Come Back."

In smaller print underneath: "The people of Maryland no longer require the services of a do-nothing, buck-passing, $20,000-a-day General Assembly."

Actually, the cost of an extended session will be closer to $5,000 a day, if most legislators agree to commute to Annapolis and forgo the usual $90 a day for meals and lodging.

But the Senate president and speaker of the House can only suggest that sacrifice; they can't mandate it.

The two chambers are to convene today at 10 a.m., presumably for a progress report. If there isn't much to report, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said, he may have to consider closing the session to the public so senators can feel free to speak frankly and, if need be, angrily.

But there was hope yesterday that a budget plan could be on the floor by the time they convene. Legislative leaders were to meet with the governor at 8 a.m. to work on the plan.

"We're closing the gap," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, the Montgomery County Democrat who heads the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We could be out of here by Friday -- if everybody cooperates."

That's a big if. As many as four sticking points remained yesterday. The series of informal talks included several senators apparently considered swing votes -- Sens. Michael J. Wagner, D-Anne Arundel; Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County; Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery; and Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

The problems are:

* Income tax. The House wants to increase the personal income tax rate for taxpayers who have more than $100,000 of taxable income. But some senators won't agree unless it's temporary. Limits of two and three years were on the table.

"We're close on that," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat. But he would not confirm that the House negotiators have agreed to make the tax temporary.

* The gas guzzler/sipper tax. This would reward people with fuel-efficient cars but impose a titling surtax on those who buy gas-hungry automobiles. Critics said the plan would hurt those who buy American cars and larger "family" vehicles. Senate and House negotiators were working on a compromise that would be friendlier to Detroit.

* The corporate income tax. An increase here is a hard sell, especially for senators from Montgomery County. Senator Denis -- who voted against the tax plan Monday -- has said the increase makes it impossible for his county to compete with Virginia.

* The sales tax. Although both sides agree the sales tax should be extended to some goods and services that aren't covered now, legislators are trying to decide if the sales tax should be expanded to include repairs.

"We have to agree on a package, then how to package the package," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. In other words, legislators will have to decide whether to vote on taxes separately or as part of a single bill.

Having separate tax bills makes it possible for parts of the tax plan to fail while other related measures pass.

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