Legislators stunned by projected deficits Special session today to raise fees, cut services


ANNAPOLIS -- Glum legislators will troop into the State House today and be asked to do two things most politicians hate to do: cut spending on popular programs and charge citizens more for government services.

In a preview of the one-day special session of the General Assembly, House and Senate budget committees met yesterday and joylessly endorsed separate bills designed to plug a $109 million hole in the current year's state budget and rescue $467 million worth of threatened or frozen road and transportation programs.

The budget-balancing bill to be enacted today would shuffle funds, drain away the $27.4 million balance in the state's emergency "rainy day" fund, trim spending on housing and cut the popular parkland acquisition program. The fee bill would permit the Motor Vehicle Administration to raise $42 million annually by increasing 63 separate fees.

Both bills seemed likely to pass today, most legislators agreed. But that didn't mean they were happy about it.

House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, voted with the majority when the House Ways and Means Committee approved the fee bill 15-7.

But she complained about the pressure from the Schaefer administration, which warned that without the extra fee revenue the state could lose $312 million in federal highway and transportation aid.

"I resented that vote," she said. Legislators, she said, had been forced to act "with a gun to our heads."

Chairman Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel, said: "It was a tough vote for these people. . . . If the governor would have moved, we wouldn't have had to do it. But if we had kept on playing chicken, the public would be the ultimate losers."

Opponents weren't happy, either.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted 11-1 for the MVA fees with little debate. Sen. Nancy L. Murphy, D-Baltimore County, voted no, explaining that she wanted to protect federal highway aid but could not oppose the anti-tax mood of voters in her district.

"My constituents have made it quite clear they consider it [the MVA fees] a tax and that they don't want any part of it," she said.

MVA officials say that if the fee bill passes, that they will raise 63 different charges to drivers, vehicle owners and businesses by Sept. 1. The agency plans, for example, to raise the cost of a new driver's operating license from $20 to $30, a renewal from $6 to $20 while extending the renewal period from four to five years, and the price of a new car title from $1 to $12.

State transportation officials said, and many legislators agreed, that the higher fees are justified because they will cover about 85 percent of the cost to the state of providing the services. The current fee structure covers about 30 percent, according to state officials.

FTC Delegates and senators spent little time debating the bill entitled "The Final Budget Reconciliation Act for Fiscal Year 1991." Faced with a constitutional mandate to keep the state budget in balance, the bill was approved unanimously by the committees in both houses.

The only questions came from Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's, and Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., D-Baltimore, who disputed a provision that stipulates that any money left over once the deficit is covered must be spent, first, on a parkland acquisition program and, second, on housing programs. They suggested -- and aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer had requested -- that those decisions be left to the discretion of the governor.

"The governor is going to do what he wants to do anyway. . . . Why antagonize the man? Why make the man mad now?" asked Senator Trotter. "It don't make sense to keep . . . digging at the man."

But legislative leaders had already made up their minds.

They were under pressure to restore a nearly $12 million cut from a program to reimburse local governments for already authorized park land acquisition projects and restore as much as possible of $5.6 million deleted from housing programs.

The committee vote on the budget bill took less than five minutes. Chairman Charles J. Ryan Jr., D-Prince George's, predicted it would pass without trouble today.

"I don't expect a great deal of discussion on this," he said.

Today's meeting, the 398th of Maryland's General Assembly, will be the first special session since two were held in May and October 1985 to deal with the savings and loan crisis.

Special sessions also were held in June 1983 to enact legal protections against hostile corporate takeovers, and in August 1982 to deal with an unemployment insurance problem.

In addition to the budget and MVA bills, the returning lawmakers also must decide if they want to override any of the governor's vetoes of legislation enacted by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Mr. Schaefer vetoed 11 bills for policy reasons, including a measure that could have permitted 65-mph speed limits on certain interstate highways. But legislative leaders said yesterday that they did not expect any serious override attempts.

State employee unions were expected to march outside the State House during the session to demonstrate their opposition to the upcoming requirement for all employees to work 40-hour weeks.

The additional cost to the state of bringing the legislators here for the session was estimated at $5,000 to $8,500.

Schaefer administration officials say the higher MVA fees will provide the matching money needed to preserve $309 million in federal aid for such projects as a new Route 450 bridge over the Severn and expansion of U.S. 50 south of Annapolis.

Most new transportation construction projects have been frozen since Dec. 10, when the state began to feel the pinch of lower transportation revenues. The fee revenue, when combined with the federal aid and added buying power, is expected to leverage a total of about $467 million for various projects.

The Maryland Department of Transportation proposes earmarking $14 million for repairs to state roadways where surfaces, the so-called "popcorn" asphalt, are crumbling prematurely. Ninety percent of that would come from federal funds.

The state has already spent $6 million on such projects out of its own pocket. Repairs of the asphalt surfaces were recently completed on sections of several highways, including Interstate 83 and I-795.

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