The attempt by Montgomery County legislators to strip the prestigious Burning Tree Club of its state property-tax exemption because it refuses to admit women, avoided death in the Senate today when the legislation's sponsor convinced the Senate president to change his mind about the bill's committee assignment.
Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg had originally given the bill a double referral, sending it to both the Budget and Tax Committee and the Economic Affairs Committee. That assignment was made Wednesday after Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Budget and Tax Committee who has some problems with the bill, convinced Steinberg the issue involved taxes as well as discrimination. Economic Affairs is one of the most conservative committees in the legislature and almost surely would have voted to kill the measure.
The bill, which passed the House on Tuesday, takes away the $152,000 annual exemption Burning Tree receives on its $165,609 property-tax bill. The 600-member, all-male club receives that exemption because of open-space laws. If passed, the bill would take away the exemption unless Burning Tree moved to admit women.
When Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the bill's sponsor, learned of the committee assignments Wednesday night, he stormed into Steinberg's office, furious.
"I went off a little bit, I shouldn't have," Bainum said today. "But I knew perfectly well that there was no way Economic Affairs would vote that bill out. Sending it there was as good as killing it."
Steinberg, who is from Baltimore County, was caught off guard by Bainum's attack. "I didn't realize what a hot bill this is," he said. "I don't read the Washington papers and all I saw was that it was a Montgomery County local bill. But when Stewart came in like that, I told him I would reconsider."
Bainum would not say it, but other proponents of the bill saw Levitan's suggestion of a double referral as an attempt to kill the bill. Levitan has long been a foe of bills which would remove tax exemptions from country clubs. He only voted for the bill in the Montgomery delegation this year after it became clear that the other six senators were going to support the measure.
"I wasn't trying to kill the bill," Levitan insisted. "I have problems with it, yes. I think it goes too far by affecting the Elks and the Moose too. I have no trouble with taking away Burning Tree's exemption, I favor that. This is overkill though. But, I'm going to vote for the bill if it comes out of committee."
Steinberg reassigned the bill to the Finance Committee this morning, after Bainum ran a computer check on where discrimination bills have gone in recent years and found they had gone to Finance.
Clutching his computer printout, Bainum met Steinberg's state trooper at the president's office this morning and went along when the trooper went to pick up Steinberg at his hotel. In the car, Bainum showed Steinberg the printout. Steinberg agreed to move the bill to Finance.
There, the bill is given a good chance of getting a favorable report and coming to the floor for passage. In Economic Affairs, there were five votes against it among the nine members.