Legislature evaded major change in term that began bravely

April 17, 1994|By John W. Frece and Marina Sarris | John W. Frece and Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writers

When Maryland's General Assembly ended its 90-day session Monday night, it was as if lawmakers consciously tried to capsulize their four-year term in one long, final day.

They killed any bill too complicated or controversial. They buried anything that might interfere with their re-election plans. They passed a handful of "feel-good" measures that neither did much nor hurt anyone.

When the midnight adjournment arrived and confetti was dumped on the presiding officers, an epitaph for members of the legislative class of 1991-1994 could have been written: "They treaded water."

Even though they dealt with vexing, often politically explosive issues -- abortion, taxes, budget cuts, redistricting and gun control, to mention a few -- lawmakers did not substantially alter the direction of government or improve the welfare of most Marylanders during the past four years.

They did pass two far-reaching reforms of health care and the parole system, but their impact will not be known for months or years.

A landmark 1993 law aims to make health insurance more available to employees of small companies, many of whom are uninsured. No one will know how successful the program will be until long after it is first offered July 1.

Nor will it be clear for a few years whether this year's parole reforms will make streets safer by forcing violent criminals to serve more time and making parole commissioners operate more openly. That's assuming Gov. William Donald Schaefer does not veto the bill as too costly.

The soon-to-be-completed term was born of the voter unrest of the 1990 election, which sent an anti-tax, anti-incumbent shiver down the spines of the old-timers and ushered in more than 40 newcomers.

The election was a demarcation between the flush budgets and spending excesses of the '80s and the retrenchment and leaner realities of the '90s.

Or so it seemed during the depths of the recession.

The state chopped programs and local aid by more than $1 billion over three years. Lawmakers reluctantly raised taxes in 1991 and 1992 -- to keep government services afloat while they came up with long-term solutions, they said.

Legislators spoke boldly of rethinking the fundamental relationship between government and citizens. What should government do and how should it do it? And who should pay for it?

It was heady stuff for Republicans and conservative Democrats.

But first, there was a budget to balance and, despite legislators' political fears, taxes to be raised.

Almost all Marylanders pay higher taxes today than they did in 1991, when the first clouds of the recession appeared and legislators made their first foray into tax territory.

The governor opened the term by presenting them with a mammoth proposal: an $800 million tax and spending program recommended by his tax commission, headed by Montgomery County lawyer R. Robert Linowes. But such a plan was anathema to lawmakers fresh from the election, and it was dead on arrival.

Just to get the budget in balance, however, they were forced to approve $95 million in new levies on cigarettes, capital gains and carryout foods, among other things.

By 1992, when the economic storm broke, lawmakers found themselves unable to avoid a huge tax increase. Tugged kicking and screaming, they passed a half-billion-dollar tax plan that affected everyone who buys gasoline, cigarettes, snack foods or newspapers, registers their car or uses car phones, or frequents a salad bar at a supermarket.

They gave Baltimore and the 23 counties the power to raise local income taxes, and they set up a higher, temporary tax bracket for the wealthiest Marylanders.

Raising those taxes was so politically and personally difficult that the 1992 session ended without a budget for the first time this century. Legislators were forced to stay in an embarrassing extended session to finish their work.

Even then it was not enough. As the state's financial problems continued, lawmakers did not interfere when Mr. Schaefer dreamed up a new lottery game to keep from having to raise taxes again. Hello, Keno!

Lawmakers attacked the problem through budget cuts as well, some of them permanent. They ended a welfare program for about 28,000 destitute single adults and reduced welfare grants for families so much that a 2 percent increase this coming year will only restore them to 1989 levels.

To save money, state employees were forced to take furloughs, work longer hours for the same pay, go without cost-of-living raises for three years and pay more for health insurance. Some were simply laid off.

'Let's move on'

The legislature even permanently axed a couple of large aid programs for local governments.

By January 1993, with the worst of the recession over, House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole of Washington County warned that lawmakers needed to restructure state government before good times made them forget the bad.

"If the water rises," he said then, "and the boat is no longer banging on the bottom, people will say, 'Let's move on to something else.' "

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