Montgomery plans filibuster over budget cut Legislator threatens to block aid to city

November 16, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece | C. Fraser Smith and John W. Frece,Staff Writers

He has laid in stores of throat lozenges, vitamins and readings on the origin of America's Social Security system. A supply of snappy red, made-for-TV neckties hangs at the ready in his closet.

For the last week, he has downed large glasses of warm water several times a day to sharpen and strengthen his voice for the filibuster ahead.

Montgomery County Sen. Howard A. Denis, one of the legislature's most willing speakers, will be a leader this week in an effort to derail Maryland's latest attempt to balance its recession-rocked budget -- a proposal that hits his county harder than any.

"I love a good fight," the Republican lawmaker says, "and this is going to be a donnybrook."

He will be up against Gov. William Donald Schaefer, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who say they have the votes to cut a $147 million program of state aid to local governments. The money is earmarked to cover the employer's share of Social Security taxes for public school teachers, librarians and community college employees.

The state says it must cut this money to balance its budget. But some legislators favor scuttling the open-ended aid program that allows counties to raise teacher salaries, for example, without worrying about the accompanying Social Security tax increases because the state covers the costs.

The amount to be cut in Montgomery is $27.3 million, the largest of the 24 local government subdivisions. Every local government would suffer significant losses: For example, Prince George's County would sustain a $21.3 million cut; Baltimore County, $20.6 million; Baltimore, $16.1 million; and Anne Arundel, $15.3 million.

Mr. Denis says he and his allies will stage an extended debate during the special session beginning Wednesday to block the bill that would order the cuts. The man who led a widely praised and successful filibuster against a bill permitting school prayer several years ago is ready once again to demonstrate what he calls "an art."

But he adds quickly: "This is no walk in the park. This is war."

He and his allies from Montgomery County say the state's political leaders are attempting to break a solemn, long-standing political promise to cover Social Security costs in exchange for Montgomery County votes on aid to other parts of the state. Some legislators and others, including the Maryland State Teachers Association, see the proposal as a frontal assault on public education.

And Mr. Denis says he and his supporters will win with their filibuster -- or they will do everything possible to kill projects wanted by other parts of the state: a $147 million convention center expansion in Baltimore, for example; or the light rail line from Anne Arundel to Baltimore.

He will propose legislation, to be introduced this week, to strip $10 million from this year's budget earmarked for helping to win a new National Football League franchise for Baltimore. And he will propose ending the state's payments on construction bonds for Oriole Park at Camden Yards now made with proceeds from a special sports lottery -- $11 million a year, he says. Mr. Denis concedes that idea could face substantial legal problems.

"Let Eli Jacobs pay for it. Let Cal Ripken pay for it," Mr. Denis says, referring respectively to the Orioles owner and the team's highly paid shortstop.

He also wants the assembly to consider using what he says is at least $15 million in the Stadium Authority's reserve fund.

"There is no reason not to take this money and use it in this crisis. I think this proposal will test the seriousness of those who say they're willing to look at alternatives."

If these proposals and others are not carefully considered, he says, senators and delegates from his county will be inclined to retaliate.

"Without strong Montgomery support for a budget in future sessions, the legislature will not be able to function," he says. "The budget won't be passed -- or not in the form it has been passed in previous years. There will be a permanent rift between the counties and the city. It will be a radically different General Assembly because we mean business." Mr. Denis says his county would find sufficient support from other suburban counties to cause problems.

But the governor and the legislative leadership say they have the votes and public opinion behind them.

"I think if any legislator or legislators engage in protracted filibuster or name calling and feet-dragging, they will be hooted down by their colleagues," said Senator Miller. "The public is fed up. . . . They want us to go into special session, be done with the public's business and go home as soon as possible"

The Montgomery senator says he thinks Mr. Miller misjudges the amount of support available for the proposal.

This session confronts lawmakers with the ninth round of cuts since budget problems began in the 1990-91 fiscal year.

"I find it hard to believe legislators have signed on before the bills were written and distributed. The leadership and the governor are trying to walk all over us with their hobnail boots," he says.

But some local governments will support the cuts because they fear other alternatives will be even worse.

HEARING SCHEDULED

The Senate Budget and Taxation and the House Appropriations committees will hold a public hearing on the spending cut legislation at 1 p.m. tomorrow, a day before Wednesday's special session. The hearing will be in the Joint Hearing Room of the Legislative Services' Building, across the street from the State House in Annapolis.

Those wishing to testify may register in advance by calling the Department of Fiscal Services at 841-3710 (from Baltimore or Annapolis), 1-800-492-7122, extension 3710 (from the rest of Maryland), or 858-3710 (from Washington).

Witnesses also must register the day of the hearing between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the hearing room entrance.

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