ANNAPOLIS – As the General Assembly closed out its 1999 session, Republicans say their successes this year show a resurgence of their minority party in the legislature.
“This was a really great year for Republicans and some of the Democrats,” said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, R-Montgomery. “We accomplished a lot.”
Despite their successes, the session left them with big goals for the next time: legislation to control government spending, stronger charter school laws, an improvement in Maryland’s business climate, tax breaks for retirees and a reform of campaign finance laws.
“You’re going to see a new Republican Party in the next four years,” said freshman Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Howard. “I think you’ve seen an inkling of that here. We’re a force to be reckoned with.”
The most showy victory came when the GOP, along with some Democrats, staged a filibuster to prevent a Senate vote on Democrat Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s proposed cigarette tax.
The filibuster managed to reduce the tobacco tax – which passed the House at the full $1-per-pack level proposed by the governor – to a final 30 cents.
“We certainly owe a lot to the senators in reducing the tobacco tax,” said House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard. “We (delegates) fought it as long as we could in the House, but we just didn’t have the votes.”
What angered many Republicans the most was the fact that Glendening linked funding for certain county projects to the revenue increase.
“Our position is, Marylanders are taxed enough, so don’t pit one senator or one region against another simply to fund your pet projects,” said Paul D. Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “I believe they (Republicans) were very effective with bringing this governor back to reality with his tax-and-spend policies. I feel this governor is a divisive force.”
Republicans fought any tax, arguing that taxpayers shouldn’t have to part with more of their money while Maryland is enjoying a $222 million revenue surplus.
The tax opponents also argued that the increase would hurt small retail business – especially those near borders with low-tax states. They also predicted an increase in cigarette smuggling and financial ruin for tobacco farmers.
Ethics reform legislation and electric utility deregulation also were listed in the GOP win column.
Republicans said they prevented ethics legislation from being diluted by Democrats. The reforms passed this session would establish strict guidelines on issues such as what types of jobs legislators could take after being elected and the kinds of gifts that could be accepted from lobbyists.
“We ended up having virtually unanimous support in the Republican caucus for keeping a strong bill,” said Flanagan.
Glendening’s approval to deregulate the electric utility industry was also a big win for Republicans, who said they were at the forefront of drafting and amending a bill that offered lower utility prices, encouraged competition and guaranteed that residential customers – not just big businesses – will enjoy the benefits.
The bill that passed, however, was sponsored by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, also a Democrat, from Prince George’s County.
“We were unified,” Flanagan said. “We got a lot of help from some good Democrats on that issue.”
Republicans claim other victories: legislation to improve the quality of Maryland’s teachers, authorization to post information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet and stripping the amendment in Glendening’s collective bargaining legislation that would establish mandatory wage deductions from union employees’ paychecks.
But they warned that if Glendening continues to force Democrats further to the left in an effort to push his programs through, as they say he did this session, there will be no chance for a truly representative legislature in the future.
“Republicans can’t figure out their left from their right,” answered Peter Krauser, chairman of Maryland’s Democratic Party. “I think it’s sad Republicans label, as left wing, any bill that promotes tolerance. The next thing you know, they’ll claim democracy is a left-wing plot.”
Krauser said Republicans should remember the beating they took in the polls last November, and that without the help of Democrats, legislation like ethics reform and the decreased tobacco tax wouldn’t have passed.
“These bills were passed because a lot more Democratic legislators voted for them than Republicans,” he said. “It’s ridiculous for them to claim that” it was because of Republicans this legislation was passed.
Still, Republicans said this session was only the beginning of what could mean a return to power for the minority party.
“I believe they’ll (Republicans) play an influential role in shaping future legislation,” Ellington said.