House expected to pass controversial Social Security bill today Senate quickly approves $147 million cut on a 29-17 vote

November 19, 1992|By John W. Frece and C. Fraser Smith | John W. Frece and C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writers Staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

Montgomery County lawmakers had threatened a "donnybrook" over legislation to slash $147 million in state aid for local governments, but in less than 24 hours found themselves out-maneuvered by General Assembly leaders and out-voted by their colleagues.

Final passage of the legislation, which would permanently end a state program that pays the Social Security taxes for school, library and community college employees in Baltimore and the 23 counties, is expected today. That could bring a swift end to a special legislative session that began only yesterday morning.

The Senate, moving with unexpected speed, easily choked off a Montgomery County filibuster after a mere 2 1/2 hours of debate. Senate leaders needed only two roll calls before they had enough votes to limit debate.

Montgomery County, which receives $27 million from the program this year and is its largest recipient, could not keep the bill from passing by a wide, 29-17 margin.

Defeat in the Senate undercut Montgomery County's delaying strategy in the House. Early yesterday, the county's tactics had prompted an angry House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, to call the 141-member House back into session at a minute after midnight this morning The shift in responsibility for the Social Security taxes 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 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]."

Governor Schaefer, who monitored the debate and then appeared outside the Senate chamber following the final vote, said, "It's never pleasant when there is dissension.

"It's never pleasant when you have to make a very difficult decision. No matter what you do, it's never right."

The governor vowed to sign the bill whenever it is finally enacted, however.

He hinted that once the furor over this bill dies down, he may try to find some way to make amends to Montgomery County.

"I don't want any subdivisions hurt. Montgomery County is particularly important to the state, and to me," he said. "I hope cooler heads will allow us to think things out."

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.

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."

Sen. Ida G. Ruben, chairman of Montgomery County's Senate delegation, warned her colleagues that last night's vote has pushed Montgomery legislators "into such a tight knit that you will never part them again."

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