Gov. Harry Hughes' pet legislative project for 1983, a new cabinet-level labor department, barely survived its first major test today, remaining alive after the word "labor" was deleted from its title.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted 7 to 6 to approve a department of employment and training after a rancorous debate that culminated with Chairman Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) casting the deciding vote.
The department, which the governor promised to labor unions while wooing their support in his reelection campaign last year, would be created by transferring to it a portion of the Department of Human Resources. It would cost the state about $470,000 a year, some of which would come from the federal government.
Hughes and his staff have argued that the new department is necessary in light of a 7.9 percent unemployment rate (about 170,000 people) that is burdening an already overworked Human Resources staff.
The governor and his aides lobbied committee members right up to the moment of the vote. Later, a Hughes staff member chortled to opponents, "You counted us out too soon."
And Levitan, the object of much gubernatorial pressure, came under fire from losing committee members.
"You know there's such a thing as committee loyalty and morale, Mr. Chairman," said Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), the Senate minority leader and a bill opponent. "You've just undermined that completely by caving into the second floor the governor's office . You know as well as I do that the majority of this committee is against this bill. We've worked for two months on this budget and then you go and pull this kind of crap."
"Cade is a crybaby," answered Levitan. "He always pulls this when he loses a close vote. I told the governor weeks ago that I didn't think he had the votes in the committee, but that if he could get six votes, I would give him a vote."
The committee was deeply divided on the issue from the beginning and Hughes, who has said the new department is his number one legislative priority, called several members to his office. One was Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), who had been opposed to the bill. "He said to me, 'I don't ask for much, but I really need this vote,' " Kelly said.
The bill must be approved by another Senate committee, Economic Affairs, but Hughes has always had the votes to get it passed there. If it passes the full Senate, where a floor fight is expected, it would have an equally tough battle in the House.