Miller views Busch tax plan as likely loser

Veto-proof House OK needed, says Senate chief

Otherwise, `exercise in futility'

Conservative Democrats are seen as vulnerable

General Assembly

March 24, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The leader of the Maryland Senate yesterday declared a $670 million House of Delegates tax proposal doomed unless it achieves an improbable veto-proof House vote this week, while House Speaker Michael E. Busch promised a unified Democratic push to convince voters of the plan's merits.

"It's a nonstarter unless there are enough votes to override the governor's veto," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, striking a far more pessimistic tone on the Busch tax package than when it was released a day earlier. "To pursue this in light of the governor's veto would be a total exercise in futility."

Miller, who, like Busch, is a Democrat, met with his House counterpart early yesterday, and said he believes the speaker will not force conservative party members in vulnerable swing districts to vote for higher sales or income taxes that could end their political careers.

But without those legislators, the House plan might not receive the 85 votes needed to override a promised veto by the governor.

"[Busch] realized that Democrats in rural areas and suburban areas will be put in jeopardy by this vote, which, if it mattered, would be totally different," Miller said. "But it is a vote that cannot possibly matter, except to cause great harm to very good people."

The speaker conceded yesterday that the taxes-for-education initiative faces stiff opposition from a Republican governor who has consistently rejected increases in broad-based taxes. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took to talk radio immediately this week to counter the House Democratic plan.

The governor continued his drumbeat yesterday. "It's a cynical political ploy conducted late in the session," Ehrlich said of the tax proposal.

"They have a big microphone," Busch said. "Obviously, the governor has the bully pulpit in the state of Maryland. That doesn't mean that reasoned approaches to governing shouldn't be heard."

Busch said he hoped his message of taxes rather than slots for schools "filters through a little bit to the general public, through the editorial pages" of newspapers and through television.

But he also said he needs the support of local Democratic leaders, such as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Howard County Executive James N. Robey to persuade wavering lawmakers in their jurisdictions to vote for the proposal.

"We do need them on our side," Busch said. "The beneficiaries of this are county governments."

Yesterday, Duncan called the House plan a "responsible position" that made more sense than the governor's push for slots and a variety of fee increases.

"Slot machines are going to take the economy down," Duncan said. But he stopped short of saying he would be able to generate support for the Busch proposal in Montgomery, the most populous jurisdiction in the state.

"It's a House vote," he said.

O'Malley did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday.

This week, Busch unveiled a sweeping tax proposal that would generate $670 million yearly for public education. The plan would raise the state's sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent. It would also increase income taxes on the wealthiest 3 percent of state residents and raise the fee to title automobiles from 5 percent to 6 percent of the vehicle's value.

At the same time, Busch would lower the state portion of property tax bills by $320 million a year. The combined net impact on a typical Maryland family would be an additional payment of about $20 a year, the speaker said.

The tax package is expected to receive a final vote in the House of Delegates on Friday. If it passes, it will head to the Senate. Senators have approved a different plan to balance the state budget, so variations would be settled by a negotiating team of lawmakers.

Miller predicted that the Senate's budget committee would reject the House plan by an 8-5 or 9-4 margin.

Democrats hold 98 votes in the House, but in the appropriations committee yesterday, six Democrats voted against the tax plan.

Conservative and moderate Democrats in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties in particular are expected to vote against Busch's package. Opposition comes from similar locations on the Senate side, Miller said.

Teachers unions and a coalition of family, children and religious advocates yesterday announced their support for the House plan and called on what they believe is the silent majority of Marylanders willing to pay the higher taxes.

"It's time for all of us in the state of Maryland to grow up," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We are here to give our leaders the courage they need."

Assembly on baltimoresun.com

Learn the names of your representatives and how to contact them and how to register to vote.

Read the text of proposed legislation, including the governor's slots bill, SB 197; the budget bill, SB 125; the budget reconciliation bill, SB 508; the liquor inspection bill, SB 409.

Review Sun coverage of the General Assembly, and contact the writers.

www.baltimoresun.com/assembly

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