Usually gregarious and quick with a joke, Delegate Marsha G. Perry was somber last week as she prepared for the General Assembly to convene Wednesday.
A bleak economic forecast and a $423 million state budget deficit already set the tone for the 90-day session, the Democrat from Crofton said.
"To start the session already in a hole kind of puts a wet blanket on any great celebrations," Perry said Friday. "It's a time to be serious about what we're doing."
Almost everything the 188-member legislature does this year will revolve around the budget crisis, which was created by shortfalls in sales and income taxes, members of theAnne Arundel delegation said last week.
"The budget will be the focus of the whole thing," Delegate John Astle, D-Annapolis, said as he predicted an unusually emotional session.
Astle, chairman of thecounty's 13-member House delegation, said a number of "tangential issues" -- such as abortion, no-fault automobile insurance and new statewide growth restrictions -- will add to the controversy.
"It's just going to be a bad session because of what we are faced with," he said.
The budget committees began grappling with the deficit more than a month ago.
"We're almost at a mid-session pace now," said Sen. Jack Cade, R-Severna Park, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Already, emotions are running high as several legislators have questioned cuts in social and health programs proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer last month.
Amid public outcry, the governor withdrew plans to slash $3 million from the budget that pays for kidney dialysis treatment for 4,200 Marylanders -- including about 120 Anne Arundel residents. But many remain critical of the governor.
"We've got to control our spending rate," new Delegate Aris Allen, R-Annapolis, said. "We've got to spend just the way you and I would spendin our own homes. From the news stories that I've been reading lately, we've been spending way beyond our ability to finance."
But, Allen, a retired medical doctor, said the kidney dialysis program was the wrong place to start.
"I don't know how they arrived at such a consideration in the first place," he said. "We should look at every other area before we look there."
Astle, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he fears such proposed cuts may be harbingers.
"In that instance (the kidney dialysis program), the governor was able to solve those without drastic action," Astle said. "But that's just the beginning. We have a lot of similar decisions to make."
Traditionally, budget matters have been left to members of the Appropriations and the Budget and Taxation committees. But other lawmakers -- the memory of tax revolts and anti-incumbent sentiment at the polls still fresh in their minds -- say they will become more involved this year.
"They'll be driven by the various interest groups fightingto protect their money," Astle said. "I've already heard from the state employees, kidney dialysis, people from day care services and those involved with the Youth Services bureaus."
Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park, agreed: "All members of the legislature are going tohave to be more active in the budget process rather than just leaving it to the committees. I know I am."
"The budget committees will have their hands on the steering wheels, but everyone gets a vote," Cade said.
Several taxes likely will be proposed. Charged with making the state system fairer, the governor's tax commission, led by R. Robert Linowes, proposed in November a vast expansion of the sales tax, an increase in personal and corporate income tax rates and a 2 percent personal property tax on boats and motor vehicles. Promoted as tax relief, the package would raise $807 million in additional revenues next year alone.
The state Department of Transportation also could request an increase in the gasoline tax to continue building roadsand expanding mass transit.
But no matter how difficult and emotional spending cuts become, tax increases remain equally unpopular, Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale, said.
"Voters delivered a prettyloud message this trip," said Wagner, who was named majority whip last month. "They're tired of taxes. With that fresh in everybody's mind, there won't be many people ready to increase taxes."
Allen is critical of the higher sales taxes -- which would include a new tax onaccounting and legal services -- because "it hits everyone at the same rate," he said. That means the poor would have to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than would affluent Marylanders, he said.
The wealthier counties, which would shoulder a heavier tax burden under the Linowes proposals, likely would fight tooth and nail as well, Delegate Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, D-Jessup, said.
"Early on, people saw it as a Robin Hood sort of deal," said Athey, who heads the Ways and Means Committee that would debate new tax proposals. "That wasn't very popular."