Was 1991 the "Do Nothing" session of the Maryland General Assembly?
Some critics say the 90-day session that ended at midnight can be characterized more by what the legislature killed than by what it passed. Skittish about taxes and worried about discontented constituents, lawmakers panned many of the major issues before them, including bills that would have imposed growth controls statewide, restructured the state tax system and raised gasoline taxes.
Legislative leaders, however, say they racked up some notable achievements. They approved an abortion rights law, campaign finance reforms, a tree preservation measure and a bill designed to keep more government meetings open to the public.
The early enactment of a law guaranteeing women's right to an abortion proved to be a particular accomplishment for the Senate, which last year became embroiled in a bitter, late-session abortion filibuster.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, admitted that this session has not been as successful as some others. He said, however, that those who contend it has been unsuccessful have been influenced more by reports of the governor's gloominess.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer spent much of the session feuding with legislators and venting his unhappiness at his 1990 election results, his dip in popularity and the state budget deficit.
"What causes people to say this hasn't been a successful session is the acrimony emanating from the second floor of the State House throughout the session," Miller said. Schaefer's office is on the second floor.
"I think the attitude surrounding the session depends far too much on the attitude of the chief executive," he said. "Many of the General Assembly's accomplishments will be overshadowed by the fact that [Schaefer] administration bills met with defeat or were referred for further study."
The casualties in the Schaefer package include: an $800 million tax-restructuring plan, a ban on military-style assault weapons, new controls on growth, and a bill to raise gasoline taxes and motor vehicle fees.
Lawmakers say they plan to study Schaefer's growth control and tax measures this summer. Legislative leaders say those proposals died in part because of their relatively late introduction last winter.
Schaefer did score some victories this session with the approval of his bills to preserve trees and revamp the state college scholarship program.
The 1991 session brought a shift in power between the executive and legislative branches, said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-W. Md. "Four years ago, Schaefer was the pre-emptive power. There has been a rebalancing, and the legislative branch is very important and effective too," he said.
"Four years ago, anything the governor had his name on would fly through here," he said. Lately, however, some legislators have been hesitant to pass bills introduced by Schaefer. "Now, unfortunately, legislative leaders run into the problem of trying to get his package passed because his name is on it," Poole said.
Like the governor, legislators had their share of worries. Fresh from an election in which angry voters ousted a number of incumbents, many believed their constituents sent them a message against higher taxes and big government.
Poole believes lawmakers tried to give voters what they wanted: leaner government and a minimum of new taxes. To prevent drastic budget cuts, the legislature approved new taxes on cigarettes, some restaurant foods and previously untaxed capital gains income.
People who wanted more money for environmental programs, roads, schools and revenue-strapped Baltimore, however, say the legislature simply did not do enough to help. "There seemed to be a general inclination to duck issues this session related to the environment, transportation and education," said one administration official.
Schaefer told reporters last week that he believes people would not have minded higher taxes if the revenues were earmarked for programs to help the handicapped and for essential capital projects.
STATE BUDGET DOMINATES
Always contentious but rarely so dominating, budget-balancing appeared at times to overshadow everything else the legislature did this year. That was because the recession hit the state hard, cutting into income and sales tax revenues, and restricting legislators from enacting laws that cost money.
The state's budget is based on estimates of how much money will be raised by fees, taxes and lottery proceeds. When those estimates are reduced by gloomy economic forecasts -- as happened several times during the budget discussions this year -- spending cuts and/or tax increases have to be made.