State lawmakers were ordered into extraordinary midnight session last night after rebellious Montgomery County delegates blocked speedy consideration of a bill to shift $147 million in state expenses to local governments.
Angered by the delaying tactics at the special legislative session that began yesterday morning, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, ordered the House to reconvene at 12:01 today to consider the budget-balancing legislation.
Across the hall in the Senate, the progress of identical legislation was slightly better, although movement stalled for 2 1/2 hours as Montgomery County senators conducted a filibuster. It ended when the rest of the Senate voted, 34-12, to cut off debate.
Despite the delays, House and Senate leaders appeared confident they will eventually have the votes to pass the bill, which would permanently shift from the state to local governments the responsibility for paying the employer's share of Social Security taxes for public school, library and community college employees.
The measure is part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to eliminate a $450 million deficit in this year's state budget.
Debate in both houses yesterday was filled with warnings that passing the Social Security bill over the objections of Montgomery and Prince George's lawmakers would create a lasting division within the General Assembly, pitting the Washington region against Baltimore, wealthy jurisdictions against poorer ones, and legislators against colleagues with whom they had once worked.
"This, I guarantee you, will split us apart," said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Without the votes the city normally gets -- without Montgomery and Prince George's -- it's going to be tough [for Baltimore]."
Montgomery's legislators insisted they have for years been promised that the state grant for Social Security would be continued indefinitely as long as they supported programs that sent money to other, less wealthy jurisdictions.
But Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, said the state's nagging financial problems had forced a new, harder look at all state aid programs.
"This is a program we can't afford," he said. "Delay will only prolong the inevitable."
Del. John G. Gary, R-Anne Arundel, agreed, saying: "A deal doesn't last forever down here."
Mr. Maloney and other backers of the bill argued that by paying Social Security taxes for local governments, the state increases the disparity in school spending between the poorest and richest local governments -- a gap other education aid programs attempt to reduce.
They also say ending the program rids the state of an open-ended expense that continued to grow every time local governments dispensed pay raises to their teachers, librarians or community college employees. Started in 1958 at a cost of $3 million, the state aid program would cost an estimated $250 million by the year 2000.
Senators from Montgomery tried no fewer than 18 times to amend the bill yesterday. They offered substitute cuts in other local aid programs; suggested other, unrelated places to cut the budget -- such as saving $11 million by de-authorizing the proposed second sports stadium in Baltimore; and tried several times to make the Social Security cut for one year only. They failed each time.
While assembly leaders said they wanted to avoid acrimony, yesterday's events seemed to push many to the limit of their patience.
When Montgomery County Sen. Patricia Sher proposed a bill and later an amendment to require Baltimore to pay the Social Security costs for two city institutions recently taken over by the state -- the city's jail and community college -- Baltimore Sen. Julian L. Lapides called it "retaliatory, small-minded and petty."