Unhappy State House Campers

January 05, 1992

It is a glum group of senators and delegates that troops back to Annapolis on Wednesday for another 90-day General Assembly session. And why not? They face a $1 billion deficit, the possibility of massive layoffs and aid cut-offs, the elimination entire agencies, the potentially explosive issue of tax increases and a barrage of protests from every group affected by their actions. There aren't any happy campers in this legislative crowd.

Right off the bat, the legislature will find itself in controversy. On Wednesday, Gov. William Donald Schaefer presents his redistricting plan, a set of maps affecting every incumbent's future. Critics have 45 days to alter the governor's lines and persuade a majority of the two chambers to approve the changes. The odds are against them: the powerful Senate president and House speaker sat on the panel that helped draft the governor's plan.

Virtually all the legislature's actions this session will be influenced by Maryland's money problems. Unless a consensus

emerges for a tax package, legislators may have to consent to Draconian reductions in programs. Schools could be especially hard hit. But so far, few legislators have shown any eagerness to push for higher sales-tax and income-tax levies as a palliative.

This could mean sharp cuts in local aid and more emphasis on basing local assistance on need. Government services could be re-defined, with the report of the governor's commission on cost efficiencies playing an important role.

When lawmakers turn away from the budget, they face decisions on complex social issues. The governor, for instance, wants to implement welfare changes to make recipients accountable for sending their kids to school and ensuring that their kids get regular medical check-ups. Mr. Schaefer also persists in seeking mandatory AIDS testing for health-care workers despite opposition from health-care leaders and his own task force.

In higher education, two big re-structuring plans are being offered: the merger of two University of Maryland campuses in the Baltimore area aimed at snaring more federal research dollars, and the semi-privatization of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. Both merit strong legislative support.

The biggest environmental battles will be fought over familiar turf: auto emissions and growth controls. The petroleum industry opposes a tough auto-pollution plan similar to California's. But the bill has strong administration backing and is a favorite of environmentally conscious legislators. The administration is also proposing a bare-bones growth-control bill that sets guidelines for counties but lacks enforcement powers. It is a worthwhile proposal, though, that should help counties think seriously about managing future growth.

This could be a contentious and discomfiting legislative session that leaves no one happy. Both the House and Senate need strong, decisive leadership in the next 90 days to tackle the multitude of troubling problems that Maryland now faces.

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