Despite the gloomy atmosphere in Annapolis, the 1992 session of the General Assembly that got under way this past week may turn out to be a watershed event. Either the 188 elected lawmakers will swallow hard and come to grips with a number of crucial issues, or the state will continue to flounder as quaking legislators run for political cover rather than offend angry interest groups.
The scene has been set for dramatic breakthroughs. Since last summer, legislators have been formulating ways to cut costs, raise new revenue and restructure government. Now they get to implement these plans.
At the same time, freshmen legislators elected in 1990 have been around the General Assembly circuit not once but three times -- one regular session and two special sessions last year. They're no longer naive rookies. They are seasoned veterans who should be ready for substantive problem-solving.
And no one in the legislature should be unsettled any more by talk of higher taxes. Despite the "no new taxes" fervor during the 1990 election, senators and delegates raised nuisance taxes last year by $90 million and then imposed large increases on motor vehicle fees -- without the wrath of the avenging taxpayer descending upon them.
Instead, public sentiment is building in favor of enhanced revenues if the money is carefully targeted and legislators convince Marylanders excessive spending has indeed been RTC wrung out of the budget.
The trick is for top lawmakers to agree on a unified approach. They have been handicapped by the refusal of Gov. William Donald Schaefer to take the lead in digging Maryland out of its deep fiscal hole over the past year. His belated tax plan, unveiled on Thursday, will give legislators some welcome cover, but it is unlikely to prove decisive. House and Senate officers still have to stick their necks out -- something they don't like doing.
They have the opportunity to revamp the state's tax structure so it is more comprehensive and equitable, with the revenue capacity to meet most of Maryland's needs this decade.
But that can only happen if lawmakers first find the courage to approve vast cuts in existing programs -- eliminating some, greatly shrinking others, reducing aid formulas to subdivisions, firing workers. That is the only sure way to lower the basic cost of government so as to keep the revenue increases within prudent political bounds.
Legislative leaders cannot afford to tarry. First, bond-rating houses are closely watching the General Assembly. If quick action on the state's $1.2 billion shortfall is not forthcoming, the state could lose its much-coveted AAA bond rating.
Second, the sooner a budget solution is put in place, the less expensive it will be. Conversely, the longer a decision is delayed, the tougher it will be to balance the state's books by June 30 as required by the constitution.
Judging from the legislature's abysmal track record under Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, the odds are no better than 50-50 that the Assembly is up to the task. Their Scarlet O'Hara approach to governing ("put off till tomorrow what we should have handled today") has helped create Maryland's monetary mess.
But a number of legislators are expressing anxiety about the public image of a General Assembly that appears too incompetent and impotent to solve the state's fiscal problems. They want action from Assembly leaders this session, not more equivocation.
While the focus will be on money matters, other far-reaching proposals have the potential to gain legislative assent. One is a tough auto-emissions bill similar to California's law that already is forcing the car industry to scramble to meet the higher standards. With strong support from the Department of the Environment and the gung-ho backing of environmental groups, this bill could put Maryland in a leadership role on auto emissions. It is a popular issue with constituents, a key point for voter-conscious legislators.
Welfare reform is also likely to win Assembly backing in large measure because of its popularity with voters. Making welfare moms responsible for educating their kids and keeping them healthy strikes a chord with taxpayers.
But perhaps the most sweeping step in the legislature could come in the area of health insurance. A "summit" of individuals and groups concerned with health care in Maryland met this weekend in Annapolis to sort out options and come up with some consensus on universal health insurance.
The most likely vehicle is a tax-credit plan. If labor and management groups agree to this approach, along with the state's doctors and hospitals, the Assembly might approve an experimental program in health insurance that could be used as a national model.
That kind of success would take enormous persistence from legislators and a commitment to resolving the health-care problem this session. The potential for forward-looking action is there, though. The groundwork has been laid.
Will legislators act decisively?
Or will they wimp out again?
They are never likely to get a better chance to make profound social changes than 1992.
Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.