Budget Gridlock: in '93, Too?

April 19, 1992|By JOHN FRECE | JOHN FRECE,John Frece is chief of the State House bureau of the Baltimore Sun.

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis. -- When state legislators finally left town last week, four days after they were supposed to, many of them departed wondering if they would ever have to go through this again.

By failing to adopt a state budget on time and missing their deadline for adjournment for the first time since at least 1916, some lawmakers said they feared it was like losing their virginity: After they've done it once, it may not be so hard to do it again.

Witness, for example, what happened with the simple requirement for the governor to introduce his budget on time. Never until the state's current budget problems arose a couple years ago had a Maryland governor failed to meet that deadline. Now, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has missed it two of the last three years.

Will lawmakers similarly cease to view the sine die adjournment at midnight of the General Assembly's 90th day as a stop sign and, instead, begin to think of it only as a measurement of how long they have gone without agreement?

It is surely possible, because the forces that caused this year's impasse have not changed, and the "solution" that ended it may prove to be no solution at all.

This year's deadlock traces its origins at least to the 1990 elections, when an anti-incumbent electorate sent a contingent of Republicans to Annapolis to stir up the complacent Democrats who control the legislature. When the recession happened along, it drove down tax revenues and forced Democratic leaders to make a no-win choice between cutting services and raising taxes.

House Republicans, seeing the budget issue as a re-election bonanza, pummeled the divided Democrats for even considering higher taxes (although, before it was all over, even the Republicans reluctantly agreed that some new taxes might be necessary).

The Republicans succeeded in turning the budget debate political and making the overriding tone of the session partisan. Democrats, fearful of losing their own seats to Republicans or simply convinced the budget hardliners were right, began side-stepping toward the Republican position.

It did not help that the Democrats' two presiding officers, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George's County and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. of Kent County, disagreed over what to do. Mr. Miller embraced a tax increase early on. Mr. Mitchell held out at first for a no-new-taxes budget and later for a low-taxes budget, even in the face of opposition from his own House leadership.

The House speaker's position was consistent with his conservative, Eastern Shore outlook, but there is no question that the pressure from the Republicans in his own chamber shifted the debate toward larger spending reductions and a smaller tax package.

To get the Republicans and other critics off their backs, the Democratic leaders went after every obvious symbol of budgetary excess: car phones, public information officers, out-of-state travel by bureaucrats, subscriptions to publications, dues to national associations. They even tried to cut their own pay increase for next year, even though that is expressly prohibited by the Constitution.

They told rank-and-file lawmakers the state could not afford to finance the traditional "pork barrel" construction projects for next year. When the House Appropriations Committee chairman attempted to slip in a $4 million minor league baseball stadium in his home town of Bowie, even fellow Democrats revolted.

Baltimore lawmakers were already on the defensive for trying to land a sizable state grant to keep their city from financial collapse. Afraid of a backlash if they seemed too greedy by seeking additional aid, they managed to hide an appropriation for the city zoo in an otherwise inconspicuous parkland acquisition bill. It became known as "the Stealth Zoo:" Most everyone knew it was coming through, but no one could see it.

When the session finally spilled into overtime, House and Senate leaders tried to limit the collective embarrassment by pleading with legislators to continue working without benefit of their guaranteed $94-a-day per diem pay for meals and lodging. Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, even offered his colleagues use of two spare rooms if they needed a place to stay.

It is hard to gauge whether all of this had any effect on the public.

But it seemed to have little effect on the fundamental, philosophical differences within the General Assembly. The issues that divided individual lawmakers on Jan. 8 still divided them on April 10.

The Republicans, and some of the newly converted Democrats, complained that government had not really been changed, that the "downsizing" was all superficial, that vacant positions may have been abolished but that the real work force escaped essentially untouched. Some of them complained the financial underpinning of the budget, a forecast for a 6 percent increase in revenues, was so overly optimistic that the legislature is sure to be back in session by this summer in search of more money.

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