Year of Living Dangerously

April 09, 1991

It was with a whimper, not a bang, that the Maryland General Assembly closed the books last night on the most abysmal 90-day legislative meeting in memory. Legislative leaders failed miserably to address the state's most pressing long-term needs, leaving Maryland in a precarious financial position that will make it difficult to ease the recession now squeezing the state.

Instead of finding ways to permanently resolve a $500 million budget gap, legislators opted for face-saving gimmicks that guarantee a quarter-billion-dollar deficit next year. Instead of setting Maryland on track to upgrade gridlocked roads and improve mass transit, lawmakers left the state's transportation cupboard bare. Instead of addressing the costly question of population sprawl, legislators decided to let haphazard growth continue unabated.

When in doubt, the 1991 Assembly chose to postpone tough decisions, hoping that the problems somehow would disappear. Legislators simply crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and decided to wait till next year to face reality. They have turned 1991 into the year of living dangerously.

Those searching for legislative achievements can point to enacting a liberal abortion-rights bill after a two-year battle (though the measure may end up on referendum); limiting the role of lobbyists and political action committees after a five-year battle over campaign finance reform; strengthening the state's open meetings statute after a two-year fight; requiring developers to plant new trees as a way to replenish the environment after a two-year struggle, and directing more state scholarship aid toward needy students.

From the outset, though, it was a rocky 90 days. Legislative leaders quarreled even before the session started with Gov. William Donald Schaefer over plans to lay off 1,500 workers. They won that argument yet refused to consider a tax-restructuring plan to set state finances in order. Instead, legislators bled the state's reserve funds and still had to raise taxes on cigarettes, snack snacks and capital gains to balance the budget temporarily.

Lawmakers also rejected two efforts by the governor to raise more road-building money. The Assembly's inaction may cost the state $150 million in federal highway funds and force a suspension of virtually all new road and mass transit projects for the next 18 months. That would prolong the recession for the state's construction industry.

And legislators set aside the governor's plan to rein-in rampant population growth by forcing each county to designate high-density and no-growth sensitive areas to avert the kind of sprawl that strains government services. Failure to act could set off a land rush among developers.

Now legislators have to make good on pledges to give rejected issues serious study this summer. They also have to reestablish a working relationship with Governor Schaefer. Maryland's senators and delegates performed shabbily this past session. They ought to start making amends quickly.

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