State's leaders turn to face the tough times ahead As the legislature opens, budget problems loom

January 09, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff Jon Morgan contributed to this story.

As the General Assembly gathered today for the 387th time in Annapolis, members made their first steps onto a terrain of economic uncertainty.

For the 45 newcomers, the highlight in the opening of the 90-day session was the formal swearing-in. Friends and family packed both State House chambers and an overflow crowd filled the lobby to watch the ceremonies on large-screen televisions.

But, beyond the festivities and well-wishes of opening day, money worries and other potentially divisive issues loom large over the Assembly.

Those issues were not lost on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who urged lawmakers to cooperate with each other over the next three months.

"Issues such as budget cuts, land use and campaign finance reform will divide us on the floor," said the Prince George's County Democrat. "But our strength is in our diversity and . . . there is nothing that we can't achieve working together."

Meanwhile, across the hall in the House of Delegates, Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, said his colleagues had received a message from voters in the last election. "I think the message all of us got was to look at the size of government and see if government can be trimmed down."

For the first time in at least 70 years, the state budget will not be submitted on time this year, aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday. State budget officials have been so busy coping with the state's financial crisis that they haven't put the budget together yet. Legislators are expected to agree to Schaefer's request to push the Jan. 19 budget deadline back to Feb. 1.

With revenue problems plaguing both the current year's budget and next year's, money matters already are uppermost on most lawmakers' minds.

"We're probably going to have to put people on corners with tin cups just to get the money we need," said Del.-elect J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick.

Stup, who headed the Frederick County Commission before her election to the House of Delegates, said she expects her previous government experience will help her understand what could be an onslaught of complicated money proposals confronting the 1991 Assembly.

"I'm glad I'm not totally new to government," she said. "I feel sorry for the novices."

Similar sentiments were expressed yesterday by Mitchell,

Mitchell, who once chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said the state's current economic conditions "are not like any I've ever seen in 20 years in Annapolis."

Mitchell said plant closings and layoffs of both blue- and white-collar workers around the state, coupled with shaky oil prices and a potentially explosive situation in the Persian Gulf, have made it nearly impossible for legislators to master Maryland's budget demands.

"We really don't hold our fate in our hands," he said.

Even though the economy has soured, Mitchell, who represents a conservative district, said he is urging fellow lawmakers not to embrace any new taxes too quickly to make up for revenue shortfalls. Instead, he warned in an interview yesterday, the 1991 Assembly should move cautiously and review state spending patterns.

Various groups of lawmakers and State House observers have been meeting to prepare for today's opening.

Republican lawmakers, still a minority in the 188-member legislature but a growing power with 34 members, met yesterday for their annual pre-session briefing.

"It's nice to see so many faces here," said Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, as he looked out at the new GOP caucus. But he warned his colleagues that, as members of a minority, "Republicans have to be smarter and quicker."

On the abortion issue -- left unsettled at the close of the 1990 session -- abortion-rights advocates presented their traditional first-day gifts to each legislator. Members received complimentary copies of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

Schaefer, whose battles with legislators became an annual ritual during his first term, predicted that this session would be calmer, despite the budget woes.

In a recent interview with reporters, the governor said his relationship with the legislature is improved. "It's great," he said. "Better than it's ever been."

Schaefer said that when he first arrived in Annapolis, he found a General Assembly that acted as though it were both the #F legislature and the governor.

"We had to sort it out," he said.

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