ANNAPOLIS — ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly, which opened its session this year with the opportunity to restructure Maryland's entire tax system, ended last night with a vote merely acknowledging that the state must do more to help Baltimore and the state's poorest counties.
It was belated recognition of the unfinished business left from this year's minimally productive 90-day session -- a year in which the legislature killed or sent to summer study virtually every major initiative except for abortion, campaign reform, and a law to make government meetings more open to the public.
The legislature's vote to send more money to the state's six poorest subdivisions was contained in a Senate bill appropriating $11.4 million to them in the coming year. But when the measure hit the House late yesterday, it drew heated opposition from suburban Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore County lawmakers, who fear it could result in permanent, annual grants to the six jurisdictions at their expense.
"This goes well beyond our original budget deal," complained Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. "This is not some harmless repetition of state policy. It is a new policy . . .that says, 'A grant shall be made to offset disparities in local income tax revenues.' "
But efforts to delete or weaken the requirement were defeated by more than two-to-one margins, and the bill ultimately was approved in the House, 107-19.
"For the first time, it establishes the principle of elevating poor counties to a higher level of funding," said Sen. John A. Pica, D-Baltimore. "It recognizes the disparities between poorer and richer jurisdictions."
Backers said the bill merely reiterated the state's goal of helping its poorest subdivisions. They tried to calm nervous opponents by waving an attorney general's opinion that says the governor does not have to finance the grant in his budget if he lacks the money.
As the lawmakers crept toward their midnight adjournment, the House and Senate approved a pair of campaign finance reform bills that will place limits on political action committee contributions, raise individual contribution limits, and attempt to move lobbyists out of the political fund-raising business. By the time the final votes were tallied, the compromises had been struck and the bills went through without debate.
During their final 14-hour day, the 188 delegates and senators also voted to permit the State Highway Administration to raise speed limits on rural interstate highways to 65 mph, to approve Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to restructure the state college scholarship program, to revise a formula to pump more money into Maryland's community colleges, and to let some podiatrists operate on ankles.
Still awaiting final resolution as the dinner hour passed last night were bills to give the state more control over the hiring and firing of local social services directors, and to add a recycling tax of up to a dollar for every new tire sold in Maryland.
A bill that would have required Maryland cars to meet California's tough vehicle emissions standards appeared headed for a solitary death, denied even a committee vote by a powerful opponent, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Yesterday's actions ended a session that was indisputably the worst for Governor Schaefer since he came to office five years ago. The legislature rejected his major tax restructuring initiative, his comprehensive plan to control growth in the Chesapeake Bay region, his effort to ban the sale and possession of assault weapons, and his proposal to pump $1.5 billion into the $l Transportation Trust Fund over the next five years, principally by raising the tax on gasoline.
Potentially the most enduring act came during the session's opening month, when legislators ended a two-year fight by approving a bill assuring a woman's right to an abortion in Maryland. But a move to petition the law to referendum in 1992 may mean even that action will not be final until voters have their say.
Legislators arrived in Annapolis Jan. 9 vowing not to raise taxes, but did so anyway to cover a huge budget deficit caused by the recession. Ultimately, they balanced this year's and next year's budget with $95 million in higher taxes on cigarettes, capital gains and certain food sales.
They also used some of the tax proceeds to send the $11.4 million to Baltimore and five poor counties: Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett and Somerset.
It was a session initially overshadowed by the Persian Gulf war, consumed for its first month by the debate over abortion, and troubled from beginning to end by a recession that left the state facing deficits exceeding $700 million this year and next.
Mutual distrust and quirky behavior from the governor permeated the session.
Mr. Schaefer found himself on the defensive, fighting not only senators and delegates who devastated his legislative initiatives, but ordinary citizens who criticized his style, and who came out of the woodwork with tales of personal visits from the irate governor or with copies of nasty letters --ed off in Mr. Schaefer's own hand.
The governor threw temper tantrums at mansion breakfast meetings with legislative leaders, and before legislative subcommittees that had the audacity to cut his office's budget.
Mr. Schaefer offered a solution to the state's economic ills: a massive plan to restructure the state's entire tax system, the product of a gubernatorial commission that, by design, withheld its recommendations until last November's election was over.
But most legislators arrived at the State House in January with the firm belief that voters wanted "no new taxes." Few, outside of those from money-starved Baltimore, wanted anything to do with a bill that would have raised more than $800 million in new taxes in the first year alone, and would have had far-reaching consequences no one could accurately predict.
Instead, they balanced spending plans for next year by raiding virtually every reserve pot of money in state government. When transfers and budget cuts together proved insufficient, they reluctantly voted to raise taxes, with part of the extra money going to Baltimore.
At the governor's urging, the lawmakers had already agreed to ** let the state take over the costly City Jail, and to assume operating costs for the Baltimore Zoo.
The House's Republican minority complained that the Democratic-controlled legislature had missed its opportunity to
cut the size of government.
Legislators similarly complained that neither they nor local officials had a hand in shaping the recommendations from the governor's "2020 Commission" to control growth in the Chesapeake Bay region, but were merely expected to approve them as presented. Coming so soon after Maryland adopted landmark laws to control development along the bay's shoreline and to protect wetlands, it was perhaps too much to expect the legislature to sign off so quickly on yet another sweeping land-use control law.
"The governor is very quick to place blame for the failure of his legislation, but when you cut through the rhetoric, the blame has to be placed at the governor's doorstep," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.
Mr. Schaefer's gas tax proposal was different: The legislature has been told for four years that an increase would be necessary this year depleted Transportation Trust Fund. But, after being forced to raise other taxes to balance the budget and distrustful of Transportation Department statistics, lawmakers decided to postpone any decision until at least the special session on congressional reapportionment this fall.
In all three cases -- Linowes, 2020, and gas tax -- the decisions were more deferrals than rejections, with Assembly leaders pledging serious summer study and definite action by next year's session on all three fronts.
"He effectively put three major issues on the table, only one of which would have been there otherwise," said Delegate James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George's.
Added Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore: "This session won't be over until our summer studies are over."
But the always impatient Mr. Schaefer took the three defeats as personal affronts, refusing the opportunity to proclaim victory, albeit a delayed one.
And from the beginning of the session he wore his antipathies on his sleeve. Still smarting from his rejection last fall by Eastern Shore voters, Mr. Schaefer made a joking but off-color remark comparing the Shore with an outhouse.
The comment angered the House speaker, an Eastern Shoreman, alienated the Eastern Shore delegation, prompted critics to circle the State House with trucks bearing outhouses, and earned the governor the kind of national publicity no politician wants. Finally, after a week of battering, he went before the House to apologize.
By then, it was too late. His behavior had replaced his programs as the main topic of conversation in the legislative corridors. On radio talk shows, callers unabashedly questioned whether the governor was playing with a full deck. "My mind's as clear as it's ever been," the governor remarked.
Suddenly legislators who had succumbed to most of what Mr. Schaefer wanted during his first four years in office began questioning his judgment. They complained he flip-flopped on cuts to balance the budget and reorganization plans. They steadily stole his authority to make state policy, and vowed not to give it back.
Late in the session, he sent down a supplemental budget filled with politically appealing social programs. Legislative leaders refused to even consider it. They then agreed to raise taxes and appropriated some of the proceeds for programs of their own liking.
"I think what you're going to have [for the next three years] is legislative government," predicted Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's.
The governor tried in vain to leverage out his programs, but even personal appeals failed. Attempts to push his bills to passage, such as by linking one important bill with another, were ignored.
" 'My way or the highway' carries no weight anymore," boasted one House leader.
The session also was marked by growing estrangement between the governor and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg. In his first term, Mr. Schaefer had used Mr. Steinberg, a five-term state senator and former Senate president, as his bridge to the legislature.
But this year, Mr. Steinberg began to distance himself from the governor, eyeing his own race for governor three years hence. Most noticeably, the two men split over how hard to push for passage of the Linowes bill.
C. Fraser Smith, Peter Jensen, Dion Thompson and David Conn of The Sun's Annapolis Bureau contributed to this article.