A display of power in 11th hour

April 07, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

SO, THEY called it a landmark education aid bill. But it's more than that. It's a tax bill. It's a slots bill. It's not exactly a hoax bill, as one Baltimore delegate said two days earlier, but it's more than it seems.

Welcome to April Madness, the General Assembly's always frantic final days.

And welcome to another exquisite display of late-inning power, the coin of the legislative realm. Power finds its level in Annapolis as annual legislative sessions fade on blessed zephyrs of spring.

Thanks to the power of an election year, legislators passed a $1.3 billion-per-year education spending bill with only hints of how to pay for it. They've raised the cigarette tax, a declining source of revenue thanks to earlier tax increases and to great appreciation of smoking's toll. But where's the rest of the money to come from?

From you, dear voter, from you. You should, of course, be glad. Maybe you'd like a more candid approach to the raid on your bank account, but you should want quality public education, which this bill should help to provide. I see you're still skeptical. Oh, well.

The Assembly has voted forthrightly this year to study Maryland's tax structure in search of ... . of what? Of where to put the bite. Taxes have to go up, so what will be taxed? Sales? Income? The study will study those options. It's a good bet, given the breathtaking shortfall in revenues, that slot machine gambling will get a serious look. That source could produce $300 million or so a year.

Legislative leaders and their green-eyeshade analysts say Maryland already faced a deficit of close to $1 billion in other spending commitments that can't be met by current revenue flow. So are we looking at a need for about $2 billion more per year?

To get us in this position, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore, chair of the committee on budget and tax, threw millions around her committee the other day to cut a deal with senators from Montgomery County who were, of course, power tripping themselves.

Constantly criticized for returning to their wealthy county with insufficient pork, these senators refused to endorse the big education aid plan unless Senator Hoffman and others would give them a few million. They weren't concerned about voting for a plan we can't pay for yet. They wanted to vote for a more expensive plan. Power apparently makes you a bit giddy.

It was even more of a spectacle: The more Montgomery got, the more the funding system fell out of balance, requiring even more money to achieve the first objective - equalization.

The velvet glove extortion worked, though, and will work even better as Montgomery grows more important in state affairs. More people and therefore more votes are there. So much of this year's campaign for governor will be fought there - and a Democratic senator from Baltimore might well have hoped to insulate her party's candidate from the charge that they didn't put more money into Montgomery schools.

In Montgomery, if you have to run on higher taxes or lower education spending, your choice is always higher taxes. Montgomery loves its schools and pays for them generously. That's why, in part, the per-classroom spending patterns are out of balance. That's why we need to spend $1.3 billion more on aid to education, and that's why, believe it or not, we had to give Montgomery even more money.

Baltimore surely does need all the power it can get. It doesn't even have the unconditional support of all its representatives.

Take Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, for example. Earlier in the week, he refused to allow a critically important capital spending bill out of the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs. He held it because he doesn't like its House sponsor, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings of Baltimore, who referred to Mr. Mitchell recently as "despicable."

Payback is hell, particularly in the halls of legislative power. In this case, the collateral damage might have been considerable. The money would continue restoration of the Hippodrome Theater in the city's west-side renewal area.

Mr. Rawlings, the influential Appropriations Committee chairman, sought to expose what he called a petty power grab. "There comes a point," he said, "when you have to address childish behavior." Actually, it was fairly common legislative behavior.

But then suddenly, a breakthrough. The bill moved. No one in Senator Mitchell's office or Delegate Rawlings' office seemed to know exactly why.

Power works in wondrous ways.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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