GOP is forcing Md. tax issue Democrats are moving closer to minority party's position

March 09, 1997|By C. FRASER SMITH

The electronic tote boards on the marble walls high above Maryland's House of Delegates chamber showed enough "Yes" votes for a Democratic win - another drubbing for the eternally over-matched Republicans.

The House would follow its Democratic leader, Casper R. Taylor who wished to delay consideration of a GOP tax cut proposal. Later, later, said House Speaker Taylor. Not the right time. Cart before horse.

Enough said in a Democratic legislature. Or was it?

Not this year. Not nearly enough. Of 141 delegates, only 41 are Republican, but they are speaking with a voice that belies their size.

"It's not the numbers," said Delegate Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican. "It's the message."

Her message: Marylanders want an income tax cut made possible by budget cuts, not by new taxes. It was the Republicans' 6 percent tax cut proposal that Taylor and the Democrats wanted to delay last Tuesday until they had finished with the state's $15 billion budget.

Initially, Taylor and Gov. Parris N. Glendening wanted a 10 percent cut arranged to attract new businesses and primarily to benefit the wealthy.

By the end of last week, though, Taylor and Glendening stood closer to the Republican plan.

The speaker has hit upon a 7 percent solution, a reduction reduced from 10 percent to 7 percent - because it can be paid for largely with accumulated savings and budget cuts.

Just how much relief is to be granted awaits final budget action by the two houses. The House is expected to approve a budget this week, sending it on to a Senate that appears even more anxious to make cuts.

One can debate which party's message has prevailed so far this year, but few could doubt that Republicans are forcing Democrats to listen more closely.

Cryor and her GOP colleagues believe Marylanders want less government and leaner budgets even if the local arts council suffers or the tourism advertising budget dries up or the reserve fund for welfare reform has to be sacrificed.

Democrats think these programs matter to people and they know the Republicans' real agenda is not cutting so much as it is amputating - lopping off entire programs, entire departments.

But an even more apocalyptic element in the tax cutting equation is personal: Springtime comes early for Republicans this year because they are certain that any failure to support tax cutting and program trimming makes an incumbent Democrat extremely vulnerable to Republican opposition in 1998.

Many Democrats feel they can't go home again without a tax cut to hang on the campaign headquarters door. New taxes or tax increases - maybe even a cigarette tax increase - is simply unthinkable. Thus, tax cutting that started out as economic development looks more and more like incumbent protection, including the incumbent governor.

Thus, the significance of Taylor's effort to delay the GOP's tax cutting proposal until after budget deliberation and his own revised tax cut proposal were ready.

"It's not a procedural vote," said Del. James F. Ports, a Baltimore County Republican, as the House debated a motion to delay his party's bill. "It's a tax cut vote."

When the strict party line vote was recorded, Taylor said Ports and his Republican colleagues had assured a tax cut with a Democratic stamp, a marginally deeper cut than the GOP had promised.

A day later, though, Republicans presented their budget cuts at an extraordinary Appropriations Committee hearing. Republicans don't usually get a chance to present their caucus' views in a full dress committee hearing.

Both parties thought the other had fallen into a trap.

Democrats wanted the Republicans to take responsibility publicly for laying the knife to programs well-loved by their constituents. Often, according to this view, the GOP speaks in abstractions without taking responsibility for the economies they urge. Quite the contrary, sometimes.

"It is galling," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat from Hagerstown, "to have a particular legislator vote against all the spending - and then have him show up at a ribbon cutting to take credit and have his picture taken."

But if that was true, Republicans gamely trooped to the witness table last Wednesday night to advocate what Ports likes to call "programmatic efficiencies" - in all, $150 million worth. And, the Democrats were happy to point out, this year's cuts would be only a down payment on the goal of 24 percent.

After their presentations last Wednesday, representatives of Glendening offered rebuttals, defending the $204,000 for operation of the gubernatorial yacht and the $196,000 for a skybox Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The debate was seldom rancorous because both sides knew the Democratic majority had made up its mind on most of the cuts. Occasionally, the discussion resembled real debate.

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