Gulf war distracts state Assembly

January 28, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- In the offices of the House Environmental Matters Committee, a half-dozen committee staff members clustered around a 6-inch television screen to watch the latest news media briefing on the Persian Gulf conflict.

With no bills to consider, the nearby committee hearing room was empty all Wednesday afternoon, as it would be again Thursday and Friday, the laser printer silent, the computer screens blank. All eyes were focused on the flickering, black and white images of the tiny TV set a secretary had brought from home.

In the James Senate Office Building across the street, Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, was weary from late nights watching CNN headlines and early mornings pouring over newspapers for the latest about the Middle East crisis.

"I feel my own heart is somewhere in a sealed room wearing a gas mask," said Mr. Denis, capturing a mood that pervades much of the state capital these days. "It's difficult to concentrate on what we're doing here."

With the 90-day session approaching the quarter-turn, the distracted 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly are coming to grips with a depressing question: Who cares about state government when the country is at war?

To suggest that events in Annapolis are overshadowed by events in the Persian Gulf would be an understatement on a par with calling Saddam Hussein an annoying fellow.

While delegates and senators in Annapolis debate clamming regulations, notary fees and the reporting of escalator accidents, there is death and destruction in Iraq, Scud missiles fall on Israel and Saudi Arabia, and people are watching the live coverage.

It's enough to make a politician feel downright irrelevant.

"I'm watching television 11:30 to 12:30 at night. You can't turn it off. It's . . . addictive," said Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg. "You get into early morning meetings where you can't even keep your eyes open. It's thrown a damper on a lot of things."

The gulf fighting started the same day Mr. Steinberg and Gov. William Donald Schaefer were sworn in for a second term. Two days later, the governor's annual address to the legislature was delayed while everyone listened to a presidential news conference.

In recent speeches, Governor Schaefer has included a little pep talk to reach through the solemn mood. He warned the legislature not to slip into "melancholy paralysis" and exhorted them to "keep the ship of state sailing full sail during this critical time."

Legislators claim to have received less mail and fewer phone calls this year, with only the perennial issues of abortion and taxes provoking much interest from their constituents.

"The general population is much more concerned about the Middle East," said Delegate Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee. "It's hard to bring a bunch of people together to address some situation, given the world problems."

Even before the first shots were fired in the gulf, the legislative session was destined to be gloomy.

The economic recession, slumping tax revenue and growing demands on social welfare programs have forced massive cutbacks in state programs to counter a $432 million deficit in the current budget.

The shortfall is only expected to grow as the state economy deteriorates. Next year's budget, normally submitted by the governor to the Assembly by the session's 10th day, has been delayed while the administration's fiscal experts look for ways to further pare spending.

House and Senate leaders have warned members not to submit bills with ideas that would cost the state any money. The result has been one of the slowest starting sessions in memory.

Last Friday, only four of 10 standing committees even scheduled meetings. So far, committee sessions have been short and dominated by informational briefings, normal in the first year of a new term but dull nevertheless.

"It's unbelievable," John B. Bowers Jr., a lobbyist for the Maryland Bankers Association, said of the lethargic start.

During the last four-year term, an average of 3,300 to 3,400 bills were requested by legislators each session. According to the agency that drafts bills on behalf of their legislative sponsors, only 2,214 had been requested by Tuesday's deadline.

While that number may still grow by 400 to 500 before the session's end, it still represents the fewest bill requests in two decades at least, said William Sommerville, supervisor of the General Assembly's legislative drafting office.

"Typically 30 [percent] to 40 percent of legislation has a fiscal note. This year, even if the bill has a slight fiscal impact, it's just not going to make it," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, a House appropriations subcommittee chairman.

But for legislators who watched an electorate grousing about taxes and the federal deficit toss politicians out of office hither and yon last November, there is worse news to come.

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