Assembly begins its final push Governor, lawmakers differ on growth curbs

spending plan linked

'Legislative chicken'

Open issues include tax relief, school aid, budget, Smart Growth

March 31, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Entering the final week of its 90-day session, the General Assembly has methodically laid the groundwork for a productive finish -- or, if things break badly, a legislative train wreck.

With a half-dozen major issues unresolved -- including income tax relief, education aid for Baltimore and efforts to curb suburban sprawl, not to mention the state's $15 billion annual budget -- lawmakers will be forced to compromise on one issue after another.

On some, such as income taxes, the differences seem bridgeable. The state Senate has passed a 10 percent cut over five years, the House of Delegates a 7 percent reduction over two years. Similarly, on campaign finance reform, the Senate and House have passed different versions, although both head in the same general direction.

But on another issue, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to curb suburban sprawl, common ground could be harder to find.

The Senate has sided with the governor and environmentalists on the plan to direct hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending in a way that would discourage unplanned development.

But a House committee has lined up with local governments, which fear that the bill would, in effect, cede their authority over planning and zoning to the state.

Resolving such deep differences in the Assembly's final week would be difficult in any year. But Glendening has greatly increased the stakes by vowing to withhold his supplemental budget proposal -- expected to include new spending prized by many legislators -- until the Assembly has given final approval to his Smart Growth anti-sprawl bill.

Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican, called the governor's strategy "a little weird," because Glendening is linking a policy question to a fiscal matter and the issues are handled by different legislative committees.

But some observers said they can imagine a scenario under which a standoff over Smart Growth could hold up passage of the budget. Glendening administration officials have been quietly mentioning the possibility that the legislature might be forced to extend the session past its scheduled April 7 adjournment to pass the anti-sprawl bill and a budget.

"Legislative chicken," one lawmaker dubbed it.

One other key issue has become entangled in the legislative knot. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. says he wants the House to delay committee votes on the aid and management reform package for the Baltimore school system while it waits for Glendening to submit a supplemental budget.

Taylor, who has feuded almost continuously with Glendening this year, said the governor's threat would have little bearing on what the House does on the Smart Growth legislation.

"He's going to get what he's going to get [on Smart Growth], and it has nothing to do with the [budget] issue," said Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat.

If other key lawmakers are worried, they aren't showing it.

"We've got time to pass everything, including the Baltimore City schools legislation," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "A lot gets done in the last few days of the session."

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he doesn't want to wait until then. Leaving top-priority issues such as an income tax cut until the end increases the chances that disgruntled senators could filibuster a bill, killing other matters in the process.

"It's imperative that big-ticket items be resolved in the early part of the week and not wait for action on Friday, Saturday or Monday," Miller said.

But he remains optimistic.

"There's too much at stake, and we've worked too hard for it not to end successfully."

Status of major bills

As the legislature enters the final week of its annual 90-day session, here is the status of some major proposals:

Campaign finance: The House and Senate have passed bills providing for computerization of campaign contribution records, curbs on fund raising by lobbyists and restrictions on fund raising during the General Assembly session. The House package would go further, requiring candidates to file disclosure reports more frequently and to list the occupations and employers of large contributors. Differences between the two likely will have to be resolved in conference committee.

Education: The bill to overhaul management of the Baltimore school system and provide $254 million in new state aid for the city's schools over five years passed the Senate last week. House leaders say they have the votes to pass it as well, but have held off voting on the measure to see how much money Gov. Parris N. Glendening provides for schools in other jurisdictions in a supplemental budget. The governor's prepaid higher education tuition savings plan is close to final passage. But his proposal to create a HOPE college scholarship program for middle-income Maryland families was killed Saturday.

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