House Majority Leader Donald B. Robertson was relaxing in his office here today, chatting with the expansiveness of a politician who knows things are going his way, when the telephone rang. He answered it smiling, but in the minutes that followed his smile faded and his forehead wrinkled above a frown.
"Medairy . . . you say we've lost him? he asked.
"Staab? . . . Oh no."
"Okay, I'm going to call the speaker right away."
The phone call was the first of many forewarning rebellion at the State House on this Saturday afternoon. One by one key members of the House Appropriations Committee were deciding to rebuff Governor Harry Hughes and their own House leadership and approve a package of six bills designed to put automatic limits on the growth of Maryland's budget.
When Committee Chairman John B. Hargreaves finally called for a vote on the legislation, after frantically trying to stall things long enough to pull defecting members back into his camp, the pro-spending limit forces prevailed and the measures were approved by a slim 13-2-11 margin.
Just before the vote was taken, delegate Louis L. DePazzo (D-Baltimore County), confident of victory, called out "Mr. Chairman, could we please stop chewing the cud and serve up the dinner and partake thereof."
The vote was a blow to the prestige of Robinson, House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and the remainder of the House leadership, who last week publicly spoke in opposition to the spending limit measures -- the only time this session Cardin and his lieutenants have openly opposed pending legislation.
"I'm disappointed. We were never able to get more than 11 votes against [the spending limits,] Cardin said after the vote.
When the measures reach the house floor next week, Cardin said, "they will need 85 votes to pass it . . . and we'll try to use our arts or persuasion to keep them from getting that." Two of the six bills are constitutional amendments which first must receive the approval of two-thrids of the 141 House members and then must be approved by the voters in this fall's general election.
The six measures approved this afternoon were the product of a committee appointed last year to study the best method of building in limits on government the package is a measure tying annual spending increases. The keystone of increase in state budget to the annual increase in the total personal income of Maryland citizens.
Another measure in the package requires that a percentage of any surplus funds collected by the state be returned to the taxpayers as an income tax refund. Both this measure and the spending limits bill cannot go into effect until their companion constitutional amendment receive federal approval.
The final two bills in the package limit the annual growth in the number of state employes and require the automatic elimination of state jobs which remain vacant for 16 months.
After the vote, Majority Leader Robertson pointed out that the constitutional amendments in the package will require the approval of a second House panel, the Committee on Constitutional and Administrative law.
The House Appropriations committee had been considered the best place to derail the spending limitation measures, which last weekend won easy approval in the Senate's Budget and Taxation committee and which were expected to pass the Senate next week with little difficulty.
Both Hughes and Cardin had repeatedly stressed in the past week that spending limitations would deprive government officials of needed flexibility in managing the state's money. The effect of these measures would be doubly damaging, they said, if federal budget cutters eliminate a large portion of federal aid to the states.
The likely losers if the spending limitations were approved they argued, would be the state's property taxpayers, because the first area of state spending to be reduced would probably be aid to local subdivisions. Without that aid, the subdivisions would be forced to raise property taxes to keep up with rising costs.