Gov. Harry Hughes, faced with strong legislative opposition to his $68 million tax and spending plan, has decided not to try to rescue the package's most endangered element, a $500 across-the-board raise for state employes.
The Senate last week rejected Hughes' plan to tie increases in state gasoline taxes and truck fees to the $25 million pay increase and called on the governor to submit a new plan that would raise employes' pay through other state revenues. After a weekend of consideration and talks yesterday and today with legislative leaders, Hughes decided not to submit a new proposal.
Instead, administration officials said, Hughes has decided to focus his efforts on passing the proposed tax increases -- with or without the pay raise -- because he believes these measures are most important in a year of rapidly shrinking state fiscal resources.
In other legislative action:
The House gave preliminary approval to a bill that would raise the state's drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 21, defeating efforts that would have set the age at 19. The Senate has already passed a bill to make the age 19.
A bill to abolish the state's fledgling "sunset law" failed by a single vote in the Senate. The law, enacted with reformist fervor three years ago, requires 61 state boards to justify their existence or face extinction. Critics argue that the process, which has so far led to the abolition of three agencies, is itself a waste of taxpayer funds. Supporters said the review justifies its expense.
The House Ways and Means Committee approved a thoroughly revised version of Hughes' proposal to reorganize state horseracing. The key provision of the measure, now supported by Hughes, would establish a state racing authority that would be empowered to buy the Bowie thoroughbred track for up to $12 million and eventually shut it down. Critics of the measure claimed it would cost too much, to which Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), chairman of the subcommittee on racing, replied: "Let's do something even if it's wrong." Hughes' original bill would have closed the Bowie track next year by effectively buying its business for $6 million, while allowing its owners to keep the property.
The pay raise, which Hughes called his first legislative priority through most of the session, "is dead, unless there is some kind of Lazarus-like-revival," said one administration official. Although the governor has not officially abandoned the proposal, several officials said, the initiative for its passage would have to come through a reversal of sentiment in the legislature.
The truck fee bill, which would raise $12 million by applying a new surcharge on the gasoline taxes paid by trucks using state roads, won preliminary approval in the House tonight. The gasoline tax increase remained on the Senate floor after its approval yesterday by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Administration officials and state employe representatives said they still hope the pay raise might be revived in the six days before the legislature is required to enact next year's state budget. Although Senate leaders showed no sign of softening their opposition to Hughes' funding mechanism, House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin reiterated his support for the concept.
The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, approved the $25 million pay item this afternoon, raising the possibility that the pay increase, if approved by the House, could be negotiated and returned to the Senate by the House-Senate conference committee on the budget that will be formed later this week.
The House vote to raise the drinking age to 21 came amid charges that the action was a subterfuge by opponents seeking to scuttle any change by making the proposed age unacceptably high. Del. Patrick Scannello (D-Ann Arundel), who originally sponsored the bill for a one-year increase before it was amended in committee, predicted the Senate would not accept the 21-year-old provision and the bill will die in a House-Senate conference committee.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery) denied the charge, and added, "I can teel you that people in this state want 21 . . . Nineteen is just a fraud on everybody."