Losers' resentment over outcome seems largely aimed at Baltimore

November 20, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Maryland legislators took their first bold step toward a smaller state government yesterday, while erasing what many of them regarded as bad public policy.

Meeting in yet another special, budget-cutting session, the General Assembly dropped a program under which the state paid the employers' share of Social Security taxes for public school teachers.

That aid had been challenged repeatedly over the years by critics who said it sustained or even increased inequities in the level of spending on education. As long as the state was covering the Social Security taxes, local governments could be generous with their pay increases. Poorer subdivisions were unable to keep up, and disparities grew.

But with no politically acceptable remedy at hand -- and no real pressure on its finances -- the legislature kept the program intact.

"It was bad policy that lingered because we were rich," said Baltimore Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "It took a little poverty to bring us to our senses."

The change, though, has been anything but smooth, and the resentment it has engendered could be disruptive for some time.

The Assembly overwhelmed the anguished cries of betrayal from Montgomery County and pushed a total of $147 million in personnel costs onto local government. Montgomery legislators insisted they were treated unfairly because the largest share of the money, $27 million, came from their county. They had supported a cornucopia of public works projects on the condition the Social Security grants would never be touched.

On nine separate occasions over the last three years, the Assembly met to consider ways of patching its chronic budget blowouts. More than $2 billion in state spending was cut. But the deficits seemed built-in or "structural," to use the government term.

Still, until this week, virtually all proposals to alter the size or shape of government were sidestepped in the hope an economic rebound would make them unnecessary.

The Social Security cuts may be only the beginning. A half-dozen public and private commissions are at work searching for things to drop, downsize or turn over to private enterprise. The state's school construction program is being restudied and could be shifted to local governments.

Legislative leaders now say almost everything government does will be reviewed.

"We've been half-stepping for 2 1/2 years," said Del. Howard A. Pete Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, as he urged passage of the bill. "Let's take a full step and bring about sound fiscal policy."

The passage of the Social Security measure left deep wounds. Much of the anger was directed at Baltimore.

"This is really the beginning of the end for the city," said Sen.

Mary Boergers, one of many Montgomery County legislators who vows to block any legislation that would help Baltimore.

"I assume the Convention Center expansion is dead," said Senator Lapides, who was photographed during debate on the bill glaring at his Montgomery County colleague, Sen. Ida Ruben.

Montgomery's position drew both sympathy and criticism this week.

Del. Richard Rynd, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Montgomery's reputation for supporting projects in other jurisdictions was overstated. Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat, disagreed.

Education funding formulas that are advantageous to Baltimore, the new baseball stadium, Baltimore's subway system, the light rail system -- none of these would have been passed by the Assembly without support from Montgomery, he said.

"Votes for these projects came from legislators who operate in a political climate that is extremely unforgiving," he said. At the same time, he added, the state was at a crossroads where it simply cannot afford as much local aid -- particularly for a program that seemed to conflict with the objective of equalized funding.

That argument led Montgomery legislators to complain that others were trying to destroy their "world class" education system.

And that complaint made still other legislators accuse Montgomery of trying to create and defend an "elite" system.

Montgomery's angry response yielded a number of ironies.

A county delegation that prides itself on principled, reasoned consideration of issues relied heavily in its opposition to this bill on raw politics -- deals its predecessors had made and threats -- rather than arguments about the soundness of the policy it was defending.

Several other counties, though hit almost as hard in proportion to their budgets, accepted the cuts as inevitable.

And while the Montgomery legislators seemed determined to exercise political skills, they seemed to forget political realities.

Del. John Gary, an Anne Arundel County Republican, offered this bracing view: "This program was wrong when it was done in the first place. It was probably done in exchange for some vote. Now the deal is off. A deal doesn't last forever down here."

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