The color of money in Annapolis

April 11, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THE color of money is the story of this year's General Assembly session, which winds up its 90-day stay in Annapolis tomorrow night.

Thanks to a strong economy, state coffers are flush. So the operative color for legislators and the governor in 1999 has been surplus black, not deficit red.

The scramble for greenbacks dominated the past 89 days, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening going to extraordinary lengths to buy success.

He has linked dozens of budget items to passage of a higher tobacco tax.

Racing purses

He has held up $10 million in needed racing purse money to get lawmakers to authorize a new thoroughbred track in hopes of hurting Laurel-Pimlico owner Joseph De Francis, who opposed the governor's re-election.

Costly pet projects in legislators' districts have been tied by the governor to passage of a gay-rights bill -- a top Glendening objective.

The governor's collective bargaining bill was all about giving his ardent organized labor backers a financial payoff through wider government unionization and collection of an annual fee from non-union state workers.

Money was one of the governor's answers to problems on Maryland's state college and university campuses. He tried to give every B-average state student a $3,000 scholarship, too.

He attempted to win favor with local jurisdictions -- and their legislators -- with $260 million in school construction dollars.

The most far-reaching issue of the session -- electric deregulation -- centered on money: who would get the benefits from liberating power rates and how to ensure that both businesses and consumers profit.

The end-of-session battle over protecting businesses from lawsuits if computers aren't fixed in time to handle the Year 2000 problem has focused on whether plaintiff lawyers or companies wind up with a financial edge.

Even the legislature's reluctant efforts to draw up a new code of conduct for themselves centered on money. After all, it was the private enrichment of a few lawmakers that so shamed colleagues that tougher ethics legislation became inevitable.

But money cannot always ensure happiness -- although the winner of last week's $197 million Big Game lottery drawing might disagree.

No matter how much money the governor dangled before legislators, he couldn't earn their respect and admiration.

They criticized him for demeaning the legislative process with his attempts to win passage of bills by dangling dollars before lawmakers or threatening to withhold money.

Indeed, the governor's determination to tie his entire $17 billion budget to a near-tripling of the state's tobacco tax brought him sharp rebukes from lawmakers.

The merits of budget items never seemed as important to the governor as buying certain legislators' loyalty on other matters.

Mr. Glendening wasn't alone in focusing this session on money.

Since the state has so much cash, House Speaker Casper Taylor wants to jump-start a program to aid job development in distressed counties (like his own) and Baltimore City. He also sees that new race track in the Cumberland area as a plus for his jobs-starved Allegany County district.

For Senate President Mike Miller, bringing home more money to constituents doesn't matter as much as stopping the governor's tobacco tax. He's got tobacco growers in the Southern Maryland part of his district and he wants to protect their interests.

Cigarette taxes

With so much surplus already building in state reserves, Mr. Miller has argued against a further tax on cigarettes.

He's already won by getting the governor to trim an original $1.50 per pack increase to $1 and then to 36 cents. How much lower can he force the governor to go? Mr. Miller, a consummate deal-maker, knows the ticking legislative clock is on his side. It's about money for him, too.

The scent of money is embedded in the government scene -- state budgets, social programs, pet projects. Money helps grease the wheels of democracy.

But even in a time of plenty, doling out money can only get you so far. Governor Glendening may have discovered this year that there are limits to using appropriations as a lobbying tool.

Lawmakers don't like to be strong-armed, or threatened at every turn. It isn't worth it to them. Regardless of the price.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editor of the editorial page.

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