Registering opposition

The Political Game

Tax: Most agree on the need to end or reduce the state's inheritance tax. Making it difficult are the state's registers of wills, who depend on it for funding.

February 29, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

JUST ABOUT everybody in Annapolis agrees that the state's inheritance tax should be eliminated, or at least reduced, this year.

But figuring out how to do that has proved nettlesome, largely because of a group of politically well-placed elected officials -- the state's registers of wills.

The registers of wills have traditionally enjoyed a wide measure of independence. With their office budgets paid for directly by the fees and taxes they collect, the registers are exempt from the normal state budget process.

That means they don't have to lobby the governor and legislature yearly, as other state agencies do.

If the General Assembly eliminates the inheritance tax, it also eliminates the registers of wills' funding source.

One simple solution would be to pay for the registers' office out of the state's general fund. But that would subject them to the budget process, something the registers oppose strongly.

Under one plan designed to maintain the registers' independence, the state would kill the inheritance tax and save taxpayers about $50 million annually -- but would increase probate fees by $8 million a year to pay for the registers' budget.

Many legislators, however, are loath to cut a tax and then turn around and increase a fee to partially make up the lost revenue.

No consensus on the matter has emerged. This might be one of those decisions reached on high by the governor and legislative leaders.

Glendening, Curran differ on how to deal with Angelos

As they love to say in Annapolis, not everybody is on the same page in the state's dealings with Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos.

In recent weeks, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Gov. Parris N. Glendening have politely butted heads over how to deal with the pugnacious owner of the Orioles.

At issue is Curran's request to use state funds to hire a private law firm to represent the state in its battle with Angelos, which is headed to court next year.

The battle is over Angelos' fee for representing the state in its suit against the tobacco industry, a suit that will result in a $4 billion payout from cigarette companies to the state over 25 years.

With the matter in court, Curran wants help from outside attorneys -- in part because his chief litigator left the office and Curran and two of his top deputies have been identified as possible witnesses in the case.

Glendening has resisted Curran's request for funds, perhaps sensing the political embarrassment that would ensue if the state were spending even more money on lawyers to fight over Angelos' legal fee, which could end up as high as $1 billion.

In addition, Glendening is concerned about a drawn-out legal battle with Angelos and would prefer to see the matter settled, sources said.

A Glendening spokesman offered only general comments about the governor's position.

"The attorney general and the governor have talked about it, and the governor hopes we can find a way to resolve this so that Marylanders can see the benefit of this money," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

Lapides prods legislators to adopt strict ethics rules

A voice from General Assembly sessions past returned to Annapolis last week to prod balky legislators to adopt strict rules requiring disclosure of business deals between themselves and lobbyists.

Former Baltimore Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who for three decades waged an often-lonely fight to curb the power of moneyed interests in Maryland politics, told a House committee that ethics legislation proposed by legislative leaders was "a step forward for our democracy."

"People are sick and tired of money controlling politics, and money does control politics in Maryland and even more at the federal level," Lapides told a House committee.

The disclosure bill pending in Annapolis is almost identical to legislation Lapides proposed unsuccessfully in 1989. The bill would require a registered lobbyist to report any business transaction worth at least $1,000, or any series of transactions worth $5,000 or more, with a legislator or top state official.

As is often the case with ethics legislation, many lawmakers are criticizing the legislation as unnecessary or intrusive. Several have come up with hypothetical questions or tortured interpretations that cast the bill in an unfavorable light.

Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford County Republican, said the way she read the bill, it would require her to file a report if she spent more than $100 a week at a grocery chain that hired a lobbyist. "I would have to report my grocery purchases? Is this getting a little bit ridiculous?" Parrott asked. Other legislators questioned whether it would force them to report car purchases from dealerships represented by lobbyists.

After the hearing, Lapides said he was not surprised by the committee members' reaction.

"Ethics legislation historically brings out the most nitpicking questions of anything before the General Assembly," he said.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this column.

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