ANNAPOLIS -- Afraid to raise taxes, afraid to cut the budget again, and afraid that whatever they do will offend an already unhappy electorate, the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes this Wednesday to face options that have only this in common: All are bad.
Following a decade of booming revenues and a corresponding expansion of government, Maryland finds itself in the grip of enduring economic calamity that demands a wrenching self-examination, a return to first questions:
What do people want from government? Will they pay for it?
By the time the 90-day session ends in early April -- and despite all the fear and loathing -- it is likely that taxes will have been raised and that dozens of long-standing government programs will have been eliminated or pared back.
Promised outlays of state aid to Baltimore and the 23 counties, for instance, are likely to be cut, and in their place local governments will be given the authority to raise more taxes themselves -- whether they want it or not.
At stake more directly this year than in any in a decade are the quality of life in Maryland, the state's fiscal stability and the immediate and long-range political fortunes of the state's 188 senators and delegates.
"In a phrase, I think it is going to be the session from hell," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore.
To complicate matters further, the volatile tax and budget issues must be decided against the back drop of a new legislative redistricting plan, which Gov. William Donald Schaefer is required to introduce on the session's opening day. The new election-district map will pit delegate against delegate and senator against senator as every politician tries to hang onto familiar neighborhoods and loyal supporters. Among other changes proposed this year, the new map would merge Baltimore and Baltimore County districts for the first time.
The governor's proposal will become law automatically on the session's 45th day unless a majority of legislators in both houses agrees to an alternative. The early betting says the governor's plan will prevail.
"This is potentially a very difficult session," says Delegate D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington County, the House majority leader. "But it may be that circumstances are so bad we find ourselves not as divided as we fear. I think there's a consensus on how bad things are. With a few exceptions, you don't hear a lot of debate on whether we have serious problems. The question is what to do."
Mr. Poole and others say Marylanders may be watching their sometimes-faceless legislators this year, looking for answers.
"This year counts," he said. "People are looking for some stability."
Governor Schaefer, who's been obliged to repress his penchant for building and for the pursuit of new programs, says he is more optimistic this year about the return of the legislature. Last year, he says, the assembly rejected his pleas for additional taxes -- but he expects more cooperation this time, he said.
In a presession interview last week, he said he hoped legislators would reject "continual reduction of state government." He has provided a road map that would balance the books without taxes -- but he clearly intends to oppose it.
"That will do major damage to the subdivisions and poor people. It can be done, but when they look at the [additional] budget [cuts] we propose, it will be very difficult for the legislature to agree with," he said.
If redistricting doesn't distract legislators, the state's unusually early, March 3 presidential and congressional primaries may. Six delegates and senators are candidates for either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, and presidential candidates are likely to invade Maryland seeking an early primary victory.
Budget, tax and political issues undoubtedly will dominate the session, but the assembly will face other questions as well:
* After a series of false starts, will gambling-shy lawmakers finally legalize off-track betting on horse races? The early odds say they will.
* Can motorcycle riders again stop the legislature from requiring them to wear helmets when they ride? Probably not. A new federal highway law offers the state more money if it has a mandatory helmet law, and in these hard times the state is likely to go along with almost anything that will mean more money.
* Will the legislature take its first tentative steps toward some type of socialized health care system that aims to lower insurance costs, expand the availability of coverage, or both? The issue will be addressed at a two-day health care "summit" next week that's expected to attract up to 400 participants.
* Can the governor exert the clout necessary to push through a ban on assault weapons, or a companion measure to protect children from loaded firearms? Mr. Schaefer was unable to get similar measures through last year, and little has changed to give them more oomph this year.