Glendening tries to save legislation With one month left, key parts of agenda appear to be in peril

'Acrimonious session'

Governor negotiates with local officials, legislators on needs

March 09, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is scrambling to salvage key parts of his legislative agenda as the General Assembly enters the final month of its 90-day session.

The governor's proposed doubling of the state's 36-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes faces an uncertain future. His HOPE scholarship program for middle-income Marylanders hangs by a thread. And his plan for redirecting state spending to curb suburban sprawl has run into major problems.

To save all or some of them, the governor seems determined to bargain for as many votes as he can, using school construction funds, road projects and other state favors as currency.

"Individually, they are saying to me, 'This is what I really need,' " Glendening said last week, referring to his negotiations with legislators and local officials. "We're working on it."

In recent days, dozens of senators and delegates have been ascending the steep stone steps of the State House to the governor's second-floor office.

Glendening also has been trying to come to agreement on several issues with the executives of the state's largest counties -- key players at this time of the year because of the votes they can help produce in their counties' delegations.

At the top of the governor's list of endangered proposals is his plan to double the cigarette tax.

The proposal enjoys wide support among the public, according to polls, and many legislators would likely vote for some kind of increase.

But this late in the legislative session, an issue that important to the governor invariably gets tied to other bills.

For example, a band of 10 to 20 legislators is vowing to withhold votes for an income tax cut -- another Glendening priority -- unless the Assembly also passes the cigarette tax increase.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are trying to lure votes for the cigarette tax by promising that the revenue would provide new aid to the counties -- and perhaps even fund the governor's scholarship plan.

"A lot of people see this as a way to take care of a lot of problems," said a legislator involved in the discussions over the cigarette tax.

However, Glendening's HOPE scholarship proposal may not be salvageable. The bill would give students who maintain a "B" average a scholarship equivalent to tuition and fees at the University of Maryland College Park. But several key legislators say the state cannot afford its eventual annual cost, which estimates put at $40 million to $100 million.

Thursday, the governor had to fend off a plan by House of Delegates leaders to dispatch the scholarship bill. House leaders delayed the vote, and the HOPE proposal remains alive -- though barely.

City school aid

Serving as a backdrop for many of the discussions is the controversial proposal to revamp the Baltimore school system and designate large amounts of new state aid for the city's schools. The bill, backed by Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, calls for the city to receive $254 million in new state education aid over the next five years. State officials would be given more of a role in overseeing the struggling school system.

Legislators from other counties have made it clear they will not support the Baltimore aid plan unless their jurisdictions walk away with more state money, too.

The problem has been agreeing on how much the other jurisdictions should get.

An early proposal by the heads of the state's seven biggest jurisdictions called for $90 million in new aid to be divided among the state's 23 counties -- a figure that dwarfed the $30 million set aside for Baltimore in the first year of the city schools bill. Legislative leaders quickly dismissed the proposal, one calling it "greedy."

Lately, Glendening has been working with each county individually trying to find sources of aid that would be one-time grants, rather than perennial assistance that would bloat the budget in coming years.

Baltimore County needs

For example, Baltimore County wants money for school construction, its mentoring program and a variety of local projects, such as parks.

The governor caught up with Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger after a funeral last week, and found quiet time with Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry at an economic development announcement to try to hash out agreements on the issue.

In effect, said Schmoke, officials from other jurisdictions are saying: "We understand the needs of the city, but we need more, too. If Baltimore is going to get some, we need to, too."

Temporarily on hold is action to cut the state income tax.

After a torturous two weeks, many legislators said they believe the groundwork was laid last week to enact an income tax cut this year. The Democratic leadership in the House settled on a plan to cut taxes by 7 percent over two years, without raising other taxes to make up the lost revenue.

The plan appears to enjoy strong support in the House, and objections to a tax cut in the Senate have softened, according to some legislators.

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