Assembly confronts grim choices Legislature convenes this week with tough issues, less revenue

January 07, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly reconvenes in Annapolis Wednesday to face a dreary fiscal situation and an unusually long list of tough policy decisions that will resonate loudly with the voters back home.

Can the state in a lean budget year afford to cut income taxes and build two football stadiums?

With gun violence spreading across the state, does Maryland need tougher gun control laws?

Is an expanded automobile emissions testing program needed to clean the air -- or is it, as critics say, an intrusive piece of governmental overkill?

"I think the agenda is a little overcrowded," says House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

The unusually high number of major issues is due in large part to the low-key session a year ago, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- newly elected and distracted by a post-election lawsuit filed by his Republican opponent -- postponed consideration of some controversial proposals he had championed in the campaign.

That was fine with legislative leaders, who still were getting to know the large class of rookie lawmakers.

This year, though, the 90-day session will be far from relaxed, and many of the hard decisions will involve taxpayers' money.

As a backdrop, legislators must cope with a declining flow of funds from Washington as Congress and the president move toward balancing the federal budget.

In addition, state tax revenue is stagnant because of Maryland's continuing sluggish economy and the expected loss of thousands of federal jobs.

All that adds up to a tight fiscal situation. The state budget for next year is expected to grow at a moderate rate of about 4 percent, to roughly $15 billion.

Mr. Glendening says there will be enough money to boost education spending by more than 5 percent. But many parts of state government will have to be clipped, he says, although he has not yet released specific budget plans.

"My budget and legislative package is not one of gloom and doom," he says. "The sky is not falling. But we do have some very serious decisions to make."

Less federal money

For example, Maryland will receive less federal money for welfare and health care for the poor.

"It's very depressing," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Senate budget committee. "This is the first year I really haven't been optimistic about the future.

"It's not going to be a fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil. They are all bad choices."

The most closely watched decision of the session will likely be whether to trim the state's personal income tax, which business leaders say is a primary impediment to attracting new business.

"We are all committed to a personal income tax reduction," Mr. Glendening says. "The question is being reasonable and responsible and moderate on this."

The governor has declined to say if he will propose a tax cut this year, or how big it might be.

In any case, the General Assembly likely won't be able to make a decision until March, when lawmakers hope the federal budget stalemate will be over and up-to-date state revenue projections will be available.

"Six months ago, I thought a tax cut was a given," says Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates.

"Now the tears are coming out. You've got a lot of liberal legislators starting to holler about it. It's not going to be as easy as I thought."

Worry over tax cut

Like many in the assembly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. says he worries that a tax cut will damage important education and public safety programs.

"If it comes to that, than I'm against a tax cut," he says.

Stadium concerns

The two biggest targets in the coming session will no doubt be the millionaire owners of professional football teams that want state aid for new stadiums -- Jack Kent Cooke of the Washington Redskins and Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns.

Mr. Glendening strongly supports the proposed Browns stadium Baltimore and one for the Redskins near Landover in Prince George's County, at a total cost to the state of $273 million.

With the legislature's two presiding officers also in favor, the stadium proposals will be hard to unravel. To make sure, the governor has signaled that he wants to fund nonstadium projects in Montgomery County totaling as much as $60 million to appease lawmakers there.

There also may be some effort to ratchet back the Baltimore stadium deal to make it less lucrative for the Browns owner and more palatable to skeptical legislators.

Subsidies for rich

One of those, Sen. Christopher J. Van Hollen Jr., says stadiums are a luxury the state can't afford. At a high school in his Montgomery County district, he notes, students have been forced this winter to wear their coats in the classroom when the heat fails.

"We should be funding schools and education," Mr. Van Hollen says, "before we provide hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to NFL owners to build stadiums."

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