Sine die, at last

April 13, 1992

The Latin phrase in the headline above is defined in the dictionary as "without (a) day (being set for meeting again); for an indefinite period [to adjourn an assembly sine die]." That's what the General Assembly finally achieved -- nearly a week late and almost without a budget being enacted.

Still, the end result proved satisfactory. With public anger boiling over at the unwillingness of lawmakers to carry out their constitutional responsibilities, the lawmakers got down to work during an unprecedented extended session. A bitter budget deadlock was soon broken, a tax package approved and a construction budget put on the books.

No one will be entirely happy with the outcome. Republicans are gleefully beating Democrats over the head with the higher taxes Marylanders will be paying, but the GOP failed in attempts to stop the tax hikes by eviscerating state programs and local aid. Local officials won the right to raise the piggyback income tax but are pained by the state aid they lost through budget cuts. State officials are worried that sharp cutbacks may cripple worthwhile programs. And Marylanders are sure to complain about higher taxes.

Yet the state's deficit was so great that tax increases of some sort could not be avoided by lawmakers. They certainly tried to put off the day of reckoning, but after having seen state budgets cut well over $1.5 billion in two years, there wasn't much more "fat" to trim before hitting bone.

Expanding the sales tax base and removing exemptions makes the tax more equitable. The higher income-tax levy for rich Marylanders makes the tax structure a tad more progressive but still in need of total overhaul. The higher tax on tobacco is a sensible move to discourage smoking.

Increasing the gasoline tax by five cents will allow the state to get cracking on badly needed road improvements in gridlocked sections and to embark on a crucial expansion of Baltimore-Washington International Airport for overseas air traffic. That project could hold vast economic benefits.

Yet this $250 million tax package may not be large enough to keep the budget in balance for long. Some senators are worried that the revenue estimates of Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein are too optimistic and that the Assembly may be faced with another budget imbalance in just a few months. Any gap could be addressed, though, through a further broadening of the sales tax or by adopting the next set of cost-saving recommendations by the Butta commission on efficiency in government. Its report is due later this month.

For the moment, legislators are simply glad to get out of Annapolis. It was not a memorable session. The budget deadlock brought lawmakers a well-deserved round of ridicule. Next time, perhaps they will be more responsive to their obligations.

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