Moves aim at securing 2nd term Business leaders needed a sign

November 20, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Offering Marylanders a bonanza of tax cuts and college scholarships yesterday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening made a dramatic bid to gain control of his political future.

With his standing low in the polls, business leaders furious over his concessions to labor and members of his own party anxious to deny him a second term, Glendening began to wield the power that makes sitting governors difficult to remove.

He laid out a breathtaking array of benefits for Maryland's middle-class taxpayers, risking a return of old criticisms that he would trade government goodies for votes. Almost as an afterthought, Glendening tossed in a 10 percent pay raise for the Maryland State Police, part of the law enforcement fraternity that has always been important in his coalition of support.

The governor denied any political motive.

"If I had wanted to be political about this," he said at a news conference in Baltimore, "I would have done it one or two years ago. The reason we are here today and not a year ago is because we have to do this responsibly."

He is proposing a tax cut now, he said, because the state can afford it now.

Still, the political imperatives confronting the Democratic governor were difficult to miss.

Business leaders wanted a dramatic sign that he would address their concerns about Maryland's business climate. States with lower income taxes have been luring all the new businesses, they said.

And businessmen and -women are voters who write the big campaign contribution checks.

The governor was haunted also by the past -- and the likely future.

In 1994, his Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, promised a 24 percent income tax cut and predicted that he would never grant a cut of even 1 percent.

Sauerbrey is his likely opponent in the 1998 re-election campaign, and he defeated her last time by less than 6,000 votes.

Taking an issue away

"He had to take that issue away from her," said one of his friends and advisers. "He thought, he waited and decided it was doable. It's not about 24 percent or 10 percent. It's about whether he proposed any cut at all."

The biggest immediate dividend of yesterday's flurry of announcements may have been the image of a new Glendening administration dynamic, a more assertive profile for a man whose status has been characterized as "meltdown" or "free fall" by Democrats who worry he will drag their party to defeat across the board in 1998.

Much of his decline may be attributed to overly aggressive fund raising, which at one point had him flying to New York in a corporate jet owned by a health care company then competing for a Maryland contract. He has seemed unable to right himself since.

Glendening may say he had only economic development objectives yesterday -- and good government is often good politics -- but he was under intense pressure from political allies as well as from political opponents.

Brady factor

He had to act on taxes or risk the loss of his well-respected economic development chief, James T. Brady, who had threatened to leave unless tax relief were granted. Brady's departure would have been a no-confidence vote, further eroding the governor's standing with business groups that are still threatening to sue over his decision to grant collective bargaining rights to state workers.

Yesterday's announcement could yield some slack in this quarter, though some say the suit is still coming.

Having waited, Glendening is the second high-ranking state official to propose a cut in the state's income tax in recent weeks. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, made his tax-cut proposal for 1997 last month.

Taylor, who has been Glendening's foremost Democratic critic, granted the governor some credit.

"He realizes he can't avoid it any longer. It's unfortunate it took him this long to do it. I applaud him for going in the right direction," the speaker said.

At the same time, Taylor said he does not think basing a long-term tax cut on a declining revenue source -- cigarette sales -- is prudent. A more thoroughgoing tax reform is needed, he said, but he wondered if the governor would tackle something so potentially controversial with an election at hand.

It is another measure of Glendening's difficulty now that the House speaker and the Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller, are not rushing to stand with him. Miller, who represents a tobacco-growing constituency, also dislikes the reliance on cigarette revenue.

The governor's proposal and its cost will now come under close scrutiny.

"I will work with legislative leaders for a responsible program," Glendening promised yesterday.

Sauerbrey gave no quarter.

"With an election looming," she said, "I think he's recognized he's got to take some kind of action."

She still supports a 24 percent cut, she said, and called Glendening's move "a very timid first step."

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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