The issue is taxes and the question is whether the speaker of the House will change his mind.
Eyes are turning to R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, to see if he will agree to tax increases that would offset at least some of the proposed $450 million in cuts to the state budget.
The tax-wary Mitchell, however, said he does not see a need to call a special legislative session on taxes this month.
Instead, he would like to wait and see if the budget cuts will be as devastating as predicted. "People are already talking about a special session, and the ink isn't even dry yet" on the budget-slashing proposal, said Mitchell, D-Eastern Shore.
Nonetheless, he is likely to be bombarded by citizens who want him to change his mind.
Those residents are shocked by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to balance the budget.
Schaefer's proposal would abolish the jobs of 1,766 government workers, eliminate welfare and medical aid to the temporarily disabled, slash money for drug treatment programs, close two Maryland State Police barracks and eliminate counseling and education programs for prisoners.
It also would reduce money for health programs, colleges and universities, and local governments.
The three-member Board of Public Works, which includes Schaefer, was to take up the budget plan today.
Although many believed the board would approve the plan, heavy lobbying by advocates for the poor, state troopers, government workers, union leaders and local politicians made the outcome less certain.
Angry callers jammed the telephone lines yesterday at the offices of board members Lucille Maurer, the state treasurer, and Louis L. Goldstein, the comptroller.
Maurer said she was troubled by some aspects of the proposal, such as eliminating Med-Evac emergency service for four hours a day. The helicopters transport seriously ill or injured people to hospitals.
She planned to study the proposal further and discuss it with financial analysts, she said.
Goldstein could not be reached for comment.
If the board approves the cuts, lawmakers could reverse them by raising taxes or by making alternative cuts that require legislative approval. Of course, a combination of the two could be chosen.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is willing to meet in special session to address the budget.
"My philosophy is that there should be a forum for competing ideas," said Miller, D-Prince George's.
Lawmakers studying the state's finances should have a clearer picture of the budget problem within a week, he said.
At that time, a decision should be made as to whether a special session should be called, he said.
Mitchell, however, said he would like lawmakers who have been studying the state's taxes and expenditures this summer to finish their review before legislators decide how to solve the budget woes.
Wait until November, when the cuts would take effect, he said. "You got to give the cuts a chance to work. They may not be as devastating" as expected, Mitchell said.
Carol Arscott, an aide to House Republicans, wondered why Schaefer did not cut out more frills. As an example, she pointed to expensive-looking newsletters printed by various state agencies.
The drastic nature of the proposed cuts had some legislators and lobbyists wondering if Schaefer chose them for shock value, in order to fuel public support for tax increases.
Some wondered, for example, why he eliminated two police barracks instead of making across-the-board reductions.
Schaefer said he did not base his budget cuts on politics. Instead, he said, he avoided cutting programs that directly affect people, during four rounds of budget cuts in the past 13 months. "If I had another alternative, I'd do it."
Yet Schaefer hinted broadly that there are alternatives to his current budget-slashing plan, although he refused to call for a tax increase.
He did say, however, that he had offered a solution in January -- a not-too-veiled allusion to his bill to revamp the taxation system and raise $800 million in new taxes. Legislators rejected the bill.
Despite a long-running feud with lawmakers, Schaefer said he did not blame them for avoiding substantial tax increases. "I've got to defend the legislature. . . . They did exactly what the taxpayers told them to do in the last election. They said no new taxes. Cut back on government."
Schaefer instead pointed to Marylanders who suffer from "compassion burnout." He said a middle-income man complained to him about taxes and told him he was feeling "compassion burnout." The man did not want to help anyone any more with his taxes because he had enough of his own problems, the governor said.
Union leaders spent yesterday either caucusing or complaining about the cuts.
"We can't let these cuts stand," said Lance Cornine, director of the Maryland Classified Employees Association.
"We understand the problem that the legislature and the governor have of raising taxes," said Ricardo Silva, head of the Maryland Correctional Union. "But what we're seeing is the employees in this penal system have become the victims of the hard chess game between the governor and legislature.
"We don't see a question of cutting fat," Silva said. "You're now cutting essential services of public safety."