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Assembly wrestling with cut in taxes At midsession, common ground hard to find on top issue


With the General Assembly's 90-day session more than halfway completed, lawmakers have found little common ground the session's No. 1 issue -- whether or how to cut state income taxes.

The governor is pushing one tax plan, the House speaker another, while senators ponder a third, giving the Assembly about as much unity as a group of preschoolers playing with three sets of Tinker Toys.

Indeed, on several major issues -- ranging from education aid for Baltimore to casino-style gambling -- the legislature seems sharply divided, and some lawmakers say they cannot recall a session in which the midpoint prospects of major proposals were murkier.

"I know that things have to gel, but this has been the hardest gelling I've ever seen," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and 14-year veteran of the Assembly.

On the tax issue, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been buffeted with criticism from several angles. Liberals say his 10 percent cut in the personal income tax rate would unfairly benefit the rich and force cuts in social spending.

Conservatives complain that the governor wants to raise another tax -- the excise tax on cigarettes -- to help pay for his income tax reduction.

And many lawmakers of all stripes question his underlying premise -- that a cut in the tax rate would lead to job creation.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., meanwhile, has spent countless hours trying to cobble together a coalition to support his own proposed 10 percent cut in the tax rate, which would be coupled with other tax increases, including an increase in some telecommunications levies.

On the other side of the State House, key senators such as Hoffman and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are lukewarm to any cut in income taxes. And if one is enacted,

many senators say, it should be geared more to the lower and middle classes.

Glendening blamed

Miller acknowledged last week that the Assembly is having a hard time reaching consensus -- and put much of the blame on Glendening.

"He wants to increase spending in areas the public favors, but he also wants to cut taxes," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "Reconciling these two goals is very difficult for the General Assembly."

Already, Miller and other key lawmakers have said the governor's proposed HOPE scholarship program for middle-class

Marylanders -- estimated to cost between $48 million and $100 million annually -- is too expensive, and the bill's prospects are dim.

Students who maintain a "B" average and whose family income is less than $60,000 a year would qualify for the scholarship, which would provide a stipend equal to the cost of tuition and fees at the University of Maryland College Park -- about $4,700.

Meanwhile, Glendening, key legislators and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke are searching for enough votes to pass the governor's proposal to send an additional $254 million in education aid to Baltimore over the next five years.

The money is part of a consent decree worked out to settle three lawsuits over conditions in the city schools, and would be accompanied by a management overhaul giving the state a greater role in running the Baltimore school system.

Legislators from around the state are critical of the plan, and it appears that some votes may have to be traded for promises of extra aid for other jurisdictions tacked onto the Baltimore package.

The governor also has work to do to sell another of his initiatives -- an anti-suburban sprawl bill that would allow hundreds of millions of dollars in state money to be spent only in certain growth areas.

Glendening said he asked for help on the issue Friday from two former governors -- Harry R. Hughes and William Donald Schaefer -- both of whom were involved in major battles over land-use policy while in office.

But many rural legislators oppose the measure, saying they worry it would give the state too large a role in local land-use issues. Many in Annapolis are predicting that the bill will be put on hold until next year.

Glendening said he remains confident about the measure's chances and is adopting a sanguine outlook on the session as a whole, predicting that his package of proposals will emerge in good shape before the Assembly adjourns April 7.

'Its own pace'

"Every session has its own pace," Glendening said last week. "You don't panic. You work with the legislative leaders. You work with the individual legislators."

Lurking behind all the discussions of finances is the issue that seems to have at least nine lives -- casino-style gambling.

Glendening says he is opposed to any gambling expansion, a stance that has kept the issue from gaining traction in the State House. Proponents of more gambling, meanwhile, have ended up squabbling with each other over tactics.

On Friday, Miller, a key proponent of bringing slot machines to Maryland race tracks, had harsh things to say about a similar proposal put forward by a key delegate. The Senate president suggested that if Del. Howard P. Rawlings introduces his bill as planned next week, Miller would refuse to push the slots issue in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators are sitting back and enjoying

the discomfiture of the majority.

"The Democratic leadership is in a little more disarray than we usually see," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the GOP whip. "Usually there's a monolithic position and they're figuring how to ram it through."

As the session completed its 45th day Friday, lawmakers could point to one substantive accomplishment -- approval of brownfields legislation that is designed to make it easier to clean up polluted industrial sites, many of them in the Baltimore area.

The governor and legislative leaders congratulated each other on the accomplishment last week. But they might be advised to remember a sobering fact: The brownfields bill took two General Assembly sessions to pass, having failed last year amid a bitter legislative standoff.

Status of major proposals

As the General Assembly enters the second half of its annual 90-day session, here is the status of some major proposals:

BROWNFIELDS -- After intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations, the House of Delegates and Senate have approved a bill to make it easier for companies to redevelop polluted industrial sites. The measure is to be signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

GAMBLING -- Some key legislators want to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland horse tracks, but no action has been taken and the prospects of passage are dim because of the governor's strong opposition. The Assembly is, meanwhile, considering other ways of providing financial help for the racing industry, including a direct state grant.

TAXES -- The great unresolved issue of the session. Many lawmakers, including the governor and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., want to cut Maryland's personal income tax rate by 10 percent over three years. But there is broad disagreement about whether such a cut is prudent and, if so, how to pay for it. Proposals to increase the tax on cigarettes have drawn mixed reactions and have not yet faced a vote.

BUDGET -- A House of Delegates committee will soon begin voting on changes to the governor's proposed $15 billion budget for next year. Modest cuts are expected.

EDUCATION -- The proposal to funnel an additional $254 million in education aid to Baltimore over five years has raised many questions and objections in the Assembly. Other jurisdictions are banding together to use the Baltimore plan to win more funding for their school districts. A proposal by the governor to create a new HOPE scholarship has been deemed unaffordable by many key legislators and is likely to be shelved.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE -- The Assembly appears poised to enact significant changes in the law. Among them is a bill to require candidates to file campaign reports electronically, which would make it easier to monitor contributions. The House passed a package of bills Friday, which now go to the Senate.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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