In a series of increasingly lopsided votes that reflected a massive lobbying effort, the Maryland House of Delegates today buried a package of spending limitation measures designed to build in automatic restraints on the growth of state government.
Just a week ago, the upstart legislation unexpectedly had won the approval of the House Appropriations Committee, but that very victory set off an intense lobbying effort, as Gov. Harry Hughes set about trying to kill the bills in the State Senate and House leader worked incessantly to bring their troops back in line.
Both approaches worked. In the state Senate, where the spending limitation measures had enjoyed their greatest support, a preliminary vote Wednesday night showed that the bill's proponents were three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment that was a prerequisite for the spending limitation bill.
When this measure's twin came up for a final vote in the House today, it was defeated by a 27-vote margin. The margin of defeat for some of the remaining five bills in the package was even larger.
There were two key provisions in the package killed in the House today, one tying the annual growth of Maryland's budget to the annual growth in the gross personal income of the state's taxpayers and a second requiring the governor to return 97 percent or more of any state surplus to the state's taxpayers in the form of income tax credits.
Although apparently confident of the measures' inevitable demise, Hughes this afternoon declined to make a statement on the fate of the spending limits package until the Senate took its own vote to kill the measure, an action expected Saturday.
The apparent turnabout in the Senate's position was a direct result of a personal lobbying effort by the governor, who talked to more than half of the Senate's 47 members early this week and persuaded five of the bill's original sponsors to switch sides.
"I wanted to make sure that no one in the Senate did not know how I felt about this legislation," Hughes said at his press conference Thursday, explaining why he took an uncharacteristically activist role in the spending limits debate.
"It was not a matter of arm-twisting. It was not a matter of trading votes. It was simply a matter of stating in as clear and strong terms as I could how I felt about this legislation and why I felt it was bad for the citizens of the state of Maryland."
The bills' supporters, in their turn, also invoked the needs of state's taxpayers in making their final arguments this morning before the House voted.
"If you vote on this, you're saying to the citizens of the state of Maryland that I as a legislator do not even want to have the power to advance legislation" on spending limits, said Del. Thomas B. Kernan (D-Baltimore County), the chairman of the task force that produced the proposals.