Religious leaders protest plan to proceed with tax cut

Clergy occupy House panel room for 30 minutes

March 20, 2002|By Tim Craig and Howard Libit | Tim Craig and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Fifty Baltimore religious leaders took over a House committee room for more than 30 minutes yesterday to protest lawmakers' plans to go ahead with the last phase of the state income tax cut.

The impromptu sit-in occurred just a few minutes before the House Appropriations Committee continued work on a spending plan that preserves the tax cut and trims hundreds of millions of dollars from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's $22 billion budget proposal.

The committee could vote as soon as today on its version of the budget, and the Senate is scheduled to take a final vote on its $21.6 spending plan this morning. Negotiators from the two chambers must resolve differences by April 1.

House and Senate leaders have maintained that the General Assembly must keep its promise and let the tax cut go forward. They have rejected Glendening's proposal to delay it and are instead making large cuts to such areas as higher education and the environment.

Advocates for a variety of causes have urged a delay, saying the $177 million represented by the tax cut is crucial for programs to aid public schools and the poor.

Yesterday's protesters - including Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and Lutheran clergy - interspersed prayers with boisterous speeches, drawing a half-dozen state troopers who tried to restore order.

"We all like to say we are in favor of tax cuts, but a 2 percent tax cut at this time will only take away money and hurt the poor," said the Rev. Curtis Jones, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The ministers and priests said they chose the Appropriations Committee because they are particularly angry with its chairman, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, for his refusal to support a delay in the tax cut.

"He is playing to the House and Democratic Party leadership," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church. "But he's got to remember he's got to come back to Baltimore to stand for re-election."

Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, was rustled out of his office by the protest and tried to assist in restoring order. After a few minutes, Rawlings went back into his office and the protest continued.

"We are going to keep on marching, keep on fighting," said the Rev. Johnny N. Golden Sr., pastor of New Unity Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

Tempers flared during the protest, especially when some delegates tried to persuade the religious leaders to leave the room so the committee could start its work.

When Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat, tried to stop Golden from arguing with a state trooper, Miles shouted, "You used to be on our side marching with us; now you are marching against us."

Davis responded: "I'm still with you, but I am not letting my minister get arrested."

The protest ended - without police having to make any arrests - when Rawlings agreed to meet with some of the religious leaders.

"It is not in their interest to ignore the faith community," said the Rev. William A. Au of SS Philip and James Roman Catholic Church. "We are not going away."

After the protest ended, Rawlings and his committee continued work on their budget. Among the changes agreed to yesterday:

Restoring $200,000 in cuts to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to fill four vacant bank examiner positions. "The Allfirst issue is paramount on our minds," Rawlings said, referring to the recent disclosure of hundreds of millions of dollars in losses at Allfirst Financial Inc.

Withholding $34 million in additional school funding promised to Prince George's County if the Assembly doesn't pass legislation to restructure the system's embattled school board this year.

Reducing grants to help Maryland's most economically distressed jurisdictions by $11.8 million. The House budget would permit those grants to increase 15 percent this year, compared with a 29 percent increase in the Senate's version.

Restoring positions cut from the Office of Smart Growth. The office has one position - a Cabinet-level secretary - and Glendening is seeking to add full-time personnel. The Senate eliminated all of those new positions from its budget, but the House committee is willing to allow four people on loan from other agencies to be permanently transferred to the office.

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