Even if they voted no, legislators were blamed for tax increases

April 12, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- After the House of Delegates first approved a tax increase two weeks ago, Paul E. Weisengoff ran into a friend who demanded to know how he had voted.

"I voted no," the Baltimore Democrat replied, anticipating some nod of approval.

"Well, it passed anyway!" the man said, making clear he held Mr. Weisengoff responsible despite the no vote.

Then and there, the veteran delegate concluded that 1992 was a no-win year for the Maryland General Assembly. Whatever it did, however a member voted, the public would be unsympathetic at best, hostile at worst. Even Republicans who gleefully led the anti-tax forces in Annapolis seemed likely to be criticized for failing to hold the line.

And, as if eager to prolong the agony, legislators had lapsed into an extended session while they struggled to find a tax plan a majority could support. A full four days after it should have adjourned, the Assembly passed legislation that will have Marylanders pay at least $422 million more and as much as $710 million more in taxes per year.

The new money goes to road building, to public school classrooms, to maintenance of prisons, to hard-hit local governments and to hundreds of other uses -- none of which, legislators feared, would reduce the clamor from the public.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer did his best to support and defend the Assembly.

"It's so easy to vote no and not to be responsible, not to take the tough call," he said. "I've never seen a more courageous group of people. They were beat on. They were yelled at. They got letters you couldn't repeat on the air. But they went ahead and did what they thought was right. . . . It took some guts. I have little patience with those who say they'll vote them out."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, said she reached her limit one day when she saw a "No New Taxes" placard in a car ahead of her.

"I wanted to drive up next to that car and shout 'Get off my road!' " she said.

Legislators did not have to wait to hear the criticism: They were getting it from their colleagues. They were all in political trouble and "deservedly," said Sen. Habern W. Freeman Jr., D-Harford.

Even Mr. Weisengoff piled on. "I think we stuck it to the public like we never have before," he said. The income tax imposed on the wealthy, he said, will come off in three years while taxes that will hurt the poor and middle class have no limit.

The Assembly's internal critics argued that the legislative leaders had failed to restructure

while trimming the state's $12.5 billion budget. Others pointed out that $1.7 billion had been taken out of state spending over the last two years during six rounds of budget cutting.

"I don't think people will hold it against legislators who did what they thought was the responsible thing. They ought to hold it against those who did what was politically expedient, those who played to the crowd," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery.

The end came mercifully on Friday, according to Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, because the Assembly feared it might slip back into deadlock.

"If we don't act now, we'll be here till Christmas," he said. "People will come down here and scoop us out of chairs and send us home."

The lingering fear, of course, was that voters would hold the scoop in readiness until the 1994 election.

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