Big decisions loom near end of Assembly This week's agenda: Baltimore school aid, Smart Growth, tax cuts

'No consensus on key issues'

Lawmakers' bickering over money for home turf slows progress

March 23, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

After 2 1/2 months of preliminaries, the General Assembly will get down to the main event this week with crucial decisions looming on income tax cuts, suburban sprawl and the Baltimore school aid and reform package.

Showdown votes this week should frame the outcome of the top items on the year's legislative agenda, but they come amid increasingly stressful squabbling among lawmakers from different regions of Maryland over state aid for their areas.

Things got so bad last week that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said county executives and lawmakers from Montgomery County and even his home county of Prince George's were behaving like "pigs at the trough."

"It's been a very difficult session," said Miller, a Democratic 26-year State House veteran. With two weeks left before the session ends April 7, "we haven't been able to reach a consensus on key issues," he said.

Legislators grew increasingly optimistic last week about enacting an income tax cut as the House of Delegates approved a 7 percent reduction over two years and Senate leaders endorsed a 10 percent version over five years. The Senate will likely move its tax relief plan this week, setting up negotiations with the House.

But few lawmakers were speaking optimistically about the school aid package for Baltimore, which has become the year's main legislative bargaining chip.

The package calls for $30 million in extra aid for the city school system next year and a total of $254 million over five years.

But with the aid, the structure of the system would be fundamentally changed. A new school board -- jointly appointed by the governor and mayor -- would take control of the system, control that rests largely with the mayor now.

The package would fulfill the terms of a Baltimore court decree and settle three lawsuits over conditions in the troubled school system.

"The Baltimore school situation is very unique and one that all the counties are abundantly glad not to find themselves in," Miller said.

But even so, legislators from several jurisdictions, particularly in the Washington suburbs, are vowing to withhold their votes for the Baltimore package unless their counties also get new aid.

At the end of last week, legislative leaders and an aide to the governor made it clear that the money being sought by the suburban legislators was out of line and the two sides remained tens of millions of dollars apart.

"The governor hopefully will bring a new proposal to the legislature so that all the suburban jurisdictions can support the city on this," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Right now, the votes aren't there."

Legislative leaders agreed with the assessment. "My House is falling apart over this," lamented House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, on Friday. "We have to remind ourselves that we are state legislators and not county legislators."

Beyond the call for an end to parochialism, legislative leaders took steps to increase the pressure in the Assembly to settle differences over the schools deal.

House leaders, for example, postponed scheduled work on the state's capital budget -- which includes dozens of construction projects treasured by lawmakers -- and Senate leaders chose not to appoint a conference committee to begin reconciling House-Senate differences over the state operating budget.

Keeping such matters in limbo should help concentrate lawmakers' attention as leaders look for the votes they need to move the Baltimore school package.

"Someone here has finally got to stop posturing and let the decisions get made," said Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat and one of Taylor's lieutenants. The first key vote should come Tuesday, when House committees are scheduled to take up the Baltimore school aid package.

"We have to calm these people down and give them a reality check" before then, said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who is a key proponent of the aid package and head of the Appropriations Committee, which considers all state expenditures.

Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will try to salvage a key item from his legislative agenda that appears to be in trouble -- his bill to direct state spending to designated Smart Growth areas to curb suburban sprawl.

That bill, too, has prompted intrastate feuding, as rural lawmakers worry that it will shift state aid to urban areas.

Even as aides to the governor tried last week to craft amendments to make the legislation more palatable to rural legislators, Glendening threatened to withhold his long-awaited supplemental budget -- which includes coveted new spending -- until the House Environmental Matters Committee approves his Smart Growth bill.

The threat clearly annoyed the chairman of the committee, Del. Ronald A. Guns, who was already a critic of the bill.

"It's just bad policy to make these threats," said Guns, a Cecil County Democrat.

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