GOP renegades vote conscience, draw wrath of Assembly Independence may cost Baltimore Co.


ANNAPOLIS -- They voted "No" last year on the decoy museum for Salisbury.

They voted "No Way" on the airport museum for College Park.

They voted "Absolutely Not!" on the indoor equestrian center for Prince George's County.

Dels. Alfred W. Redmer Jr. and James F. Ports Jr. were hitting their colleagues where it hurt most, trying to deny them access to the public works bonbons that make the home folks happy.

This year, Messrs. Ports and Redmer, Baltimore County Republicans, are learning about paybacks.

In the opening days of the 1992 General Assembly, payback is the name of the game. The efforts at retribution have been aimed not only at the renegades themselves, but at Baltimore County as a whole.

* When Gov. William Donald Schaefer offered budget-balancing tax proposals, he included a commuter tax that would have shifted $7 million from Baltimore County to Baltimore City, where many county residents work.

The governor's idea was to help the city, but he is no fan of the anti-tax faction in Baltimore County. Legislative leaders quietly applauded the attack.

Mr. Schaefer later withdrew the proposal because it hurt other jurisdictions as well. But the game isn't over yet.

* Fiscal leaders are still thinking about authorizing an increase in the local piggyback income tax by raising the ceiling from 50 percent to 60 percent of the state levy.

If they made the increased local authority subject to approval by each county delegation, they knew the Baltimore County delegation would vote "No."

That "No" vote would have denied Baltimore County a right to raise the ceiling. County government would have been left with no flexibility to meet its own budget problems.

This idea, too, was abandoned. It might have turned Baltimore County into something of a tax haven -- the only subdivision where the income tax was not increased. And it might have been unconstitutional.

But the idea was popular, according to a worried friend of the county, who said resentment was so high that the prospect of making the county damage itself would have corralled 100 votes for the measure -- out of 117 non-county delegates.

* When legislative redistricting cut off a number of Baltimore County legislators from friendly constituents or linked them with city districts, Assembly leaders expressed quiet glee. And they're unlikely to approve any changes that will help the county.

The Ports-Redmer rebellion didn't deny any of their colleagues a ribbon-cutting opportunity. Each project they opposed was approved.

But many lawmakers see their breach of etiquette as part of the General Assembly's shift toward two-party politics, a shift that threatens Democrats' ability to ram their programs through unchallenged.

Only 25 of 141 delegates are Republican, but some Democrats are silent soul mates of GOP conservatives. Together, they could threaten major tax packages and budgets as well as indoor riding centers.

The Democrats say they understand a delegate who feels obliged to honor the desires of a particular constituency -- and one as strong as the anti-tax lobby in Baltimore County. But several Democrats say Baltimore County legislators have broken through the limits of tolerance.

"The problem is that [a minority of] voters and the legislative demagogues have been driving the show, and it's put the quality legislators from Baltimore County in a very tough position," said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington Co.

He said he fears that Baltimore County may be looking for government services that come without a price tag.

"They've made it clear they're not willing to work on our budget problems," says Del. Charles J. Ryan Jr., D-Prince George's, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "I think it's political. I know that all politics are local, but in the Assembly we have to do what's best for the entire state."

"They're a new kind of cat," said an important legislative player who asked not to be identified. "They're willing to burn down the county if they can control it."

Baltimore County's representatives are being isolated. They have been left out of the small group of influential legislators who are crafting a solution to the state's budget problems. The lead players are from Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"The difference is that Prince George's will vote a package [of budget cuts and tax increases]. Baltimore County won't," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

The resentment intensified last week when Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden -- also a Republican -- didn't show up for discussions with fiscal leaders trying to shape a budget that would address county concerns.

Mr. Hayden, who was drumming up tourism in Wales, is due back this week.

If a tax proposal is large enough, cuts in aid to local government will be smaller. Mr. Hayden might not have to lay off workers, for example.

His absence, for whatever reason, left legislators feeling as if the entire county was "ducking," as one of them put it, leaving the legislature to take the heat for cuts and for tax increases.

"My county executive has done a terrific job," House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County argued. She said she's heard rumblings of retribution, that aid formulas might be calculated in ways that would penalize her county.

"I think it's just plain wrong when you've got a county that's managing its finances well and you get flak because the county executive won't come down here and ask for a tax increase," she said.

The flak started with the Redmer and Ports revolt.

In earlier years, the pork barrel of state-funded projects would have been approved by an Assembly moving in lock step. Legislators of both parties adhered to the usual back-scratching protocol: You give me my project, I give you yours.

Sometimes, Delegates Ports and Redmer had been told, "You just have to hold your nose and vote green [Yes]."

They tried a different approach.

"Al and I stayed up until 10 or 11 the night before, reading the bills. We read 'em all. We looked for the ones that seemed useful and the ones that seemed to be a complete abuse of the system," Mr. Ports said.

After the shock of their votes settled in, the two delegates were summoned to the House lounge by E. Farrell Maddox, chairman of the Baltimore County's House delegation.

"What are you guys doing?" he asked, according to Mr. Ports.

"We're doing what our constituents want," said Mr. Ports. Both men had been swept into office in 1990 by the anti-tax sentiment that changed the face of politics throughout the state.

"We stayed up and read the bills," Mr. Ports said.

"You did what?" Mr. Maddox asked incredulously.

"Right then I knew we were salmon swimming upstream," Mr. Ports said.

"There's a thing called courtesy," Mr. Maddox told a reporter last year after the votes. "Sometimes you have to hold your nose. If you're pushing the red button, you've got to expect the red buttons will come back to you."

Delegates Ports and Redmer did vote for some projects, but their unwillingness to approve the package annoyed many of their colleagues. There was some talk of reconsidering Baltimore County bond bills -- for the purpose of killing them.

That possibility remains this year. Or, Baltimore County projects may never come to a floor vote, dying in the committee system still carefully controlled by the leadership.

"There are lots of ways of doing things," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore.

Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-Baltimore County, worries a bit about his Democratic friends as they resist what he sees as the mood of the voters.

For his friend, Majority Leader Poole, he said he has two words: "New Jersey."

In that state, large numbers of Democrats who supported big tax increases lost their seats in the 1990 election.

"In the short run," Mr. Ehrlich says, "they may hurt us with redistricting or a bond bill. But in the long run, it's not an effective strategy. If you think Baltimore County was Republican in 1990, just wait."

John W. Frece of The Sun's Annapolis Bureau contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad