Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes said yesterday he believes Maryland's criminal laws are stringent enough and that he would be unlikely to sign into law new measures that would make parole harder to obtain and increase use of the death penalty.
Such proposals will be introduced to the General Assembly by legislative supporters of the Stephanie Roper Committee, a group that was set up after a Frostburg State College student was raped, fatally shot and then burned. Her killers were given sentences that would allow them to be paroled in less than 12 years.
Hughes' comments, made during a luncheon interview at The Washington Post, appear to endanger many of the initiatives pushed by the committee. The governor's view also echoed the sentiments of many legislative leaders.
Earlier this week the Roper committee drew up a list of five legislative priorities that included revising the death penalty statute to make coconspirators in a first-degree murder liable for the death penalty, and requiring judge or jury to give the death penalty or life in prison without parole to anyone convicted of a capital crime with one or more aggravating circumstance.
"I don't know the specifics of the bills proposed by the Roper Committee ," Hughes said, "but if the aim is to make it easier for juries and judges to put people on death row, I doubt I would sign it. There's obviously been a tightening of parole; I don't think we need any more."
However, Hughes added: "I'm not here to criticize the judge in the Roper case but I do have some questions about his decisions on the sentencing, making the sentences concurrent instead of consecutive, which means making the person eligible for parole sooner than they would otherwise be."
In other matters Hughes, who begins his second term as governor in two weeks, said he does not believe the legislature that begins meeting next week will be willing to help Prince George's County with its fiscal problems. The county, whose voters in 1978 approved a limit on property tax collections and reaffirmed that vote last November, faces a projected $31 million shortfall next year. The new county executive, Parris Glendening, has been scrambling to get more money--or possibly authority for a county sales tax-- from the General Assembly.
Hughes, like many legislators, said he has "mixed emotions" about trying to find extra money for Prince George's. "This was a decision made by the voters of Prince George's County. On the other hand, you have people who are in need of services and children in need of education. But I don't really think there's going to be a whole lot of sentiment in the Maryland General Assembly to make an exception for Prince George's County."
Hughes also said he was opposed in principle to giving local governments the option of imposing a local sales tax. Currently only the state can impose a sales tax. Hughes said that if one jurisdiction were allowed to impose a sales tax, many others might follow the same path and the state's sales tax, one of the two largest revenue-producers in the state budget, could be jeopardized.
Overall, Hughes said he is pessimistic about the economy, saying that if it does not turn around this year he would seriously consider restructuring the state's income tax to try to get more money there than from such items as the sales taxes and nuisance taxes, which are more of a hardship on poor people.
"I think we have to look at the whole income tax structure . . . over the next year," said Hughes. "Obviously if things do continue as they are, and I don't have any reason to be optimistic that they will change, we're going to have to look at something of a more long-term, permanent nature."
For the moment, Hughes said he would try to overcome a projected $133 million shortfall in next year's (fiscal 1984) budget through a more piecemeal effort. Hughes, according to various sources, is leaning toward raising taxes on property, cigarettes, beer, wine and liquor, as well as adding a new lottery game.
Finally, Hughes said that as he heads into his second term he feels more confident. As for his future political ambitions, the governor, in keeping with his cautious style, declined to speculate. Asked specifically about a 1986 run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Charles McC. Mathias, Hughes, who turned 56 in November, said, "Why ask me the question when you know I won't answer it." Pressed, he said, smiling, "The thought may have crossed my mind once or twice. But only fleetingly."