Assembly wrestling with cut in taxes At midsession, common ground hard to find on top issue

February 23, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

With the General Assembly's 90-day session more than halfway completed, lawmakers have found little common ground the session's No. 1 issue -- whether or how to cut state income taxes.

The governor is pushing one tax plan, the House speaker another, while senators ponder a third, giving the Assembly about as much unity as a group of preschoolers playing with three sets of Tinker Toys.

Indeed, on several major issues -- ranging from education aid for Baltimore to casino-style gambling -- the legislature seems sharply divided, and some lawmakers say they cannot recall a session in which the midpoint prospects of major proposals were murkier.

"I know that things have to gel, but this has been the hardest gelling I've ever seen," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and 14-year veteran of the Assembly.

On the tax issue, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been buffeted with criticism from several angles. Liberals say his 10 percent cut in the personal income tax rate would unfairly benefit the rich and force cuts in social spending.

Conservatives complain that the governor wants to raise another tax -- the excise tax on cigarettes -- to help pay for his income tax reduction.

And many lawmakers of all stripes question his underlying premise -- that a cut in the tax rate would lead to job creation.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., meanwhile, has spent countless hours trying to cobble together a coalition to support his own proposed 10 percent cut in the tax rate, which would be coupled with other tax increases, including an increase in some telecommunications levies.

On the other side of the State House, key senators such as Hoffman and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are lukewarm to any cut in income taxes. And if one is enacted,

many senators say, it should be geared more to the lower and middle classes.

Glendening blamed

Miller acknowledged last week that the Assembly is having a hard time reaching consensus -- and put much of the blame on Glendening.

"He wants to increase spending in areas the public favors, but he also wants to cut taxes," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "Reconciling these two goals is very difficult for the General Assembly."

Already, Miller and other key lawmakers have said the governor's proposed HOPE scholarship program for middle-class

Marylanders -- estimated to cost between $48 million and $100 million annually -- is too expensive, and the bill's prospects are dim.

Students who maintain a "B" average and whose family income is less than $60,000 a year would qualify for the scholarship, which would provide a stipend equal to the cost of tuition and fees at the University of Maryland College Park -- about $4,700.

Meanwhile, Glendening, key legislators and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke are searching for enough votes to pass the governor's proposal to send an additional $254 million in education aid to Baltimore over the next five years.

The money is part of a consent decree worked out to settle three lawsuits over conditions in the city schools, and would be accompanied by a management overhaul giving the state a greater role in running the Baltimore school system.

Legislators from around the state are critical of the plan, and it appears that some votes may have to be traded for promises of extra aid for other jurisdictions tacked onto the Baltimore package.

The governor also has work to do to sell another of his initiatives -- an anti-suburban sprawl bill that would allow hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to be spent only in certain growth areas.

Glendening said he asked for help on the issue Friday from two former governors -- Harry R. Hughes and William Donald Schaefer -- both of whom were involved in major battles over land-use policy while in office.

But many rural legislators oppose the measure, saying they worry it would give the state too large a role in local land-use issues. Many in Annapolis are predicting that the bill will be put on hold until next year.

Glendening said he remains confident about the measure's chances and is adopting a sanguine outlook on the session as a whole, predicting that his package of proposals will emerge in good shape before the Assembly adjourns April 7.

'Its own pace'

"Every session has its own pace," Glendening said last week. "You don't panic. You work with the legislative leaders. You work with the individual legislators."

Lurking behind all the discussions of finances is the issue that seems to have at least nine lives -- casino-style gambling.

Glendening says he is opposed to any gambling expansion, a stance that has kept the issue from gaining traction in the State House. Proponents of more gambling, meanwhile, have ended up squabbling with each other over tactics.

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