Legislators try to derail budget plan But coalition supporting cuts in benefits holds

November 18, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Montgomery and Prince George's county officials yesterday hurled an array of rhetorical darts at legislation that would end a $147 million local aid program that benefits their counties the most.

None seemed to stick.

Senators, delegates and county executives from the two suburban Washington counties, appearing before the General Assembly's two budget committees, begged and pleaded, reasoned and intellectualized, pointed to charts filled with numbers and offered their own alternative plan. They claimed they were being railroaded, hit disproportionately hard and treated unfairly.

"It's been sort of a steamroll," complained Montgomery County Sen. Laurence Levitan, who testified against the bill even though as chairman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee he was co-chairing yesterday's hearing.

He was joined at the witness table by Del. Nancy K. Kopp, another Montgomery County Democrat, who spoke against the bill even though she is speaker pro tem, the second highest-ranking member of the House of Delegates.

The unified Montgomery County contingent argued that the plan to terminate a state program that pays Baltimore's and the 23 counties' share of Social Security taxes for school teachers, librarians and community college employees ultimately would hurt schoolchildren because it would force local governments to cut funding for education. County senators have threatened a filibuster if they don't get their way.

After hours of testimony, however, neither House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. nor Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said they had heard anything to dissuade them from pushing the Social Security legislation when the General Assembly convenes in special session today at 10 a.m.

"I knew from the get-go that I didn't expect Montgomery County to like this, or to vote for this," said Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat. "Nothing can be done to soften the blow."

Mr. Miller said Montgomery County has enjoyed the benefit of having the state pick up its Social Security costs for so long that county officials have come to view it as "an entitlement."

Although he is from Prince George's County and well aware of the strong opposition from teachers and other elected officials there, he defended the plan as fairest for the entire state.

Mr. Miller said the cost to the state for the Social Security program was open-ended, driven up at the whim and discretion of county officials every time they dispensed pay raises. A

program that cost the state $3 million when it was started in 1958 has grown to $147 million this year and would cost an estimated $250 million by the year 2000, he said.

Montgomery County legislators offered an alternative that instead would cut local aid programs for school buses, libraries, "challenge grants" for public schools, subsidies for the 911 emergency service, and a grant for jurisdictions where horse racing tracks are located.

Senate President Miller, however, complained about several aspects of the Montgomery County plan, noting it also fell about $20 million short of the approximately $150 million needed to balance the budget. Rural counties particularly fear the cut in school bus subsidies, he said.

Members of the two budget committees seemed disinterested in considering any alternative to the Social Security plan despite appeals from Delegate Kopp, Senator Levitan and others.

"It's regrettable," remarked Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico, "but we seem to be pitting region against region over something none of us in the General Assembly like."

The $147 million in savings that would be realized by ending the Social Security program is part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's broader plan to erase a $450 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

Another element of the plan is to raise $50 million by starting a new keno-style lottery game. William S. Ratchford II, the legislature's chief budget adviser, said he doubts the new game will raise half that much but said such a shortfall would probably be offset by a modest increase in other revenues.

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