Surplus money is likely to fuel Assembly fires

Lawmakers foresee battle over dividing state's ample funds

`Money, money, money'

February 27, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The 2000 session of the Maryland General Assembly, now at its halfway point, has been something between a pep rally and love-in, with legislators basking in the warm feelings a billion-dollar surplus can bring.

Now it's down to serious business. And Sen. Robert R. Neall has a clear idea of what the most contested issues will be.

"Money, money, money -- in that order," said the Anne Arundel County Republican-turned-Democrat.

With six weeks and a day remaining before the closing gavel is scheduled to fall April 10, hard decisions remain on the state's spending and taxation priorities. Those choices could quickly turn what has been a placid, harmonious session into a dogfight over dollars.

Neall said the 2000 session could be the mirror image of 1992, when enormous deficits forced lawmakers to slash and burn their way through the budget. That year, legislators had to go into overtime because they couldn't wrap up the budget within the normal 90-day session. Neall is worried that having such a big pile of money on hand could force the same result.

"It's going to be just as difficult to get a group of people to agree on a single list of priorities for this state," he said.

This year, the focus of contention is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's $1.7 billion plan for spending the state's tobacco settlement windfall over the next 10 years.

In particular, such leading lawmakers as Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings are questioning Glendening's plan to focus $500 million on the goal of "conquering" cancer in Maryland.

Rawlings, like many other lawmakers, has his own wish list for how the money should be spent. So numerous are the legislative suggestions that some lawmakers, including Neall, are openly expressing the desire to take another year to allocate the tobacco funds.

Such rumblings prompted Glendening to warn legislators Friday not to delay or tamper with his agenda for the money.

"We will use the full resources of our office to make sure the first $1 billion of the tobacco settlement is used to fight cancer, to fight tobacco addiction and to end tobacco production in Maryland," Glendening said.

Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, noted that those resources are considerable. "He has the greatest budgetary power of any governor in the country, so that's a resource," he said.

The governor is also standing fast against the desire of General Assembly leaders to accelerate the phased-in income tax cut they adopted in 1997. But if revenue estimates due in March project a flood of new money, pressure to give some of the windfall back to taxpayers could mount.

Glendening is well-positioned to resist that pressure -- or to exact a high price for his acquiescence. Flush with money and enjoying some of the best poll numbers of his six-year administration, the governor expressed confidence that he will get his way on his top priorities.

Budgetary issues are dominating the session because of the lack of any defining controversy such as the Ravens stadium in 1996 or Baltimore city school aid in 1997. Abortion and gay rights, issues that never fail to raise tensions, are unlikely to make it to the Senate floor this year.

Without such issues inflaming passions, Assembly veterans are marveling at the absence of acrimony.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, said legislators are happy because voters are happy.

"Very few citizens are complaining," he said. "The folks are content and they're satisfied with the role government plays in their lives."

Sitting outside the circle of contentment are the Assembly's outnumbered Republicans, lamenting that the public doesn't share their concern over the growth of spending.

"It does seem we're getting rolled over by this mammoth political machine that is distributing all these goodies to these special interest groups," said House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County.

Certainly there are serious nonbudget items that remain to be decided, but it says something about a session when one of the most hotly discussed bills involves cleaner septic tanks.

That measure, the leading item on Glendening's environmental agenda, appears to be in deep trouble in the House Environmental Matters Committee, where it ran into fierce industry opposition. The governor might still get a bill out of the committee, but it is unlikely to look much like the legislation he proposed.

Another Glendening priority, pushing the gun industry to adopt new safety technology, faces similar difficulty in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The chairman of that panel, Sen. Walter M. Baker, has indicated that if any safe-guns bill comes out of his committee, it will be substantially rewritten.

The governor is also twisting arms on a bill that would create a model building code to encourage redevelopment of aging urban areas -- a measure he has billed as the next phase of his Smart Growth strategy.

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