In a rebuke to Gov. Harry Hughes, the House of Delegates tonight voted against his effort to liberalize requirements for obtaining a Medicaid-funded abortion. Instead, it adopted stricter language that state health officials say has caused a 50 percent reduction in state-financed abortions in Maryland.
The vote for stricter requirements came after House members narrowly defeated language patterned on the federal Hyde amendment that would have eliminated all but a few Medicaid-funded abortions.
The debate on abortion, an annual source of controversy here, came during consideration of Hughes' fiscal 1984 budget. As if following a carefully crafted script, the House sped through the entire $6.4 billion budget with little debate except on the abortion issue.
In an unusually orderly and workmanlike fashion, the 141 delegates easily supported $24 million in cuts that the House Appropriations Committee had recommended as a way to avoid the governor's proposed increases in cigarette and alcoholic beverages taxes. Today's vote means that the so-called "sin taxes" will almost certainly be unnecessary.
The biggest cuts approved by the House included $9.6 million of the money Hughes had slated for Medicaid reimbursments, $1 million from the low-income energy assistance program, $3.5 million which had been slated for faculty salary raises at the University of Maryland and $4.5 million from the government's share of state employe health costs. The latter cut will force state employes to pay about $66 more a year for health benefits.
The House votes, which will be formally adopted on Monday, came just hours after Hughes said that he had withdrawn his proposal to increase the state property tax by three cents because of a slightly improved state revenue picture.
Hughes' decision followed an announcement today by the state's Board of Revenue Estimates that state tax collections had improved in the last few months, bringing into state coffers $17.4 million more than expected. That amount was almost exactly what was needed to offset the proposed three-cent property tax increase.
Hughes, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and State Treasurer William S. James make up the three-member board that must approve any property tax increase.
Hughes said the news of increased revenues was "most encouraging." He added, however, that he is opposed to legislative efforts to cut programs instead of increasing "sin taxes."
"I don't think that is fiscally sound," he said. "These cuts are one-time savings that could mean we will be back here with more fiscal problems in a year."
Hughes said he will continue to lobby the legislature to back off from its cuts. The House-approved budget will go to the Senate for consideration. Any disagreements between the two houses will be resolved in conference committee.
According to the Board of Revenue Estimates, the major source of new state funds was better-than-expected Christmas sales which the board attributed to an easing of the national recession. About $13 million of the new money came from sales-tax collections.
But, it was only by scraping up other normally overlooked revenue that the board was able to come up with enough money to avoid having to take the politically painful step of raising the property tax. Hughes had proposed in his budget that the tax be increased from 21 to 24 cents per $100 of assessed value, resulting in an additional $16.5 million.
"A lot of small items that in another year you might have waited until December to count were included now," said Marvin Bond, spokesman for the comptroller's office. Among them was the $268,000 settlement of a court case with former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for repayment of kickbacks from state contractors when he was governor in 1968 and 1969.
The eagerness to avoid tax increases this year was apparent today when the House agreed to support the $23.8 million in program cuts that were designed to offset Hughes's proposed sin-tax increases. Debate on the budget, normally at least a two-day event, took just over three hours.
Even debate on state funding for Medicaid abortions was controlled and orderly.
"The issue is should the state pay for abortions," said Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), in support of Hyde amendment language. "What we're saying is unless these conditions (rape, incest or threat to the mother's life) exist, the state is not going to pay. First we legalize it, now we're paying for it."
Del. Gene Counihan (D-Montgomery) disagreed. "We're not asking anyone tonight to decide on the issue of abortion," said Counihan. "The question is equity. Do poor women have the same choice available as women who have the ability to pay?"