With 30 minutes remaining in the 1986 session of the Maryland General Assembly, Del. Mary H. Boergers (D-Montgomery) stalked into the ornate lounge of the state Senate, stood toe to toe with her fellow Montgomery Democrat, Sen. Laurence Levitan, and angrily complained, "Larry, it's dead. The bill is dead."
Levitan shrugged in assent, for he too knew that nothing could save the thing nearest to Boergers' political heart, her proposal to grant a one-time amnesty for thousands of tax delinquents in Maryland who owe corporate, personal or sales taxes.
Although there was ample time to compromise on tax amnesty legislation -- 30 minutes is forever on the last night of the legislature -- Boergers' bill had become the victim of the delegate's own ego, Levitan's stubborn refusal to bow to Boergers, Montgomery County politics and, eventually, the clock itself.
The death of the tax amnesty bill, which some lawmakers estimated would have generated $60 million for state and local government, is news by itself. But the reasons the bill died also speak volumes about how the General Assembly sometimes fails to act when push comes to shove.
The amnesty bill died because members of the Senate and House of Delegates simply refused to do on the last day of the session what they had spent the previous 89 days doing: compromise.
"Nobody looks good," a still-angry Boergers said early today, after the legislature had adjourned at midnight. "Nobody wins, and that's very, very unfortunate."
Boergers, more than any other legislator, was stung by the defeat of tax amnesty because she had hoped to use passage of her bill to boost her campaign against incumbent state Sen. S. Frank Shore, a relatively quiet Democrat whose major claim to fame was passage this year of a law he sponsored on mandatory seat belt use.
Tax amnesty legislation has passed in other states, but was particularly attractive to Maryland lawmakers in this year of federal budget cuts and the costly savings and loan crisis.
For several hours on Monday, Boergers, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, refused to budge from her position that the Senate should pass the tax amnesty bill that bore her name. Under Boergers' bill, local governments would share 60 percent of the amnesty proceeds, leaving the state with the other 40 percent.
Levitan, whose chairmanship of the Budget and Taxation Committee makes him a powerful member of the Senate leadership, opposed the Boergers distribution formula, saying state government deserved all the proceeds. Like Boergers, he refused to back down, supporting instead a rival Senate bill that had no local distribution.
"We had a position we felt was right and stuck to it," Levitan said today.
The rift between Levitan and Boergers was part of larger quarrel between their respective committees, whose members had traded barbs in recent days about bills being held hostage.
"You can't work with people who are just arrogantly saying, 'My way or no way,' " Boergers said Monday as the two chambers deadlocked on the tax amnesty bills. "It's like negotiating with the Russians."
Then entered Gov. Harry Hughes, who tried to patch things up by bringing the two sides together in his office -- with less than four hours to go before adjournment. The participants, including House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), reached a shaky middle ground by agreeing to give the first $9.5 million in amnesty proceeds to the state and splitting the balance with local governments.
The compromise soon crumpled in the House, where delegates repeated their calls for Senate passage of Boergers' bill. The Senate, for its part, was content to watch the bill die.
"You see a lot of this sponsorship stuff in an election year," said Levitan. "People would rather have no bill at all than have a bill pass without their name on it."
After confronting Levitan in the Senate lounge this morning, Boergers told anyone within earshot that her bill expired because Levitan was looking out for his longtime colleague Shore. Her post-mortem was, "It's all politics."
Benjamin Bialek, an aide to Hughes who had a ringside seat on the tax amnesty dispute, summed up the feelings of many when he lectured Boergers outside the Senate lounge.
"The people of the state suffer, Mary," Bialek said. "All I can say is that it's just too bad. It's too bad."