First, the Gang of 26 took up the budget. Then the Baker's Dozen. Then the Final Four.
In smaller and smaller groups, state lawmakers have grappled with Maryland's $1.2 billion deficit for fiscal year 1993.
For them, it's an intricate financial and political puzzle.
Once the pieces fit, they will have a lasting impact on taxpayers' wallets, business profits, state workers and the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens who benefit from spending on health, education, welfare and social services.
The so-called Gang of 26, an ad hoc committee appointed to develop a plan for dealing with the budget, proved too large to do the job, so a smaller group, the Baker's Dozen, began to weigh the options.
Its recommendations were discussed yesterday by the presiding officers and budget chairmen of the House and Senate -- the Final Four -- who reached a consensus on the outline of the puzzle.
Today, they will ask their colleagues to help fashion pieces for the odd-shaped holes.
"We'll be broadening the discussion, bringing more people in the tent," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.
Their tentative plan would eliminate nearly $728 million of the deficit by cutting out spending increases that would have normally occurred next year -- such as new money for local governments and pay raises for state workers.
It would raise another $26 million by increasing vehicle registration fees by $8. The money would cover the cost of Maryland's Med- Evac helicopter program.
That leaves the state $386 million in the hole, and legislators couldn't come up with the rest yesterday.
House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, complimented colleagues on their work, but he told them to cut more.
They want to cut the budget by $728 million; he wants $800 million. They have agreed that new taxes are necessary; Mitchell wants to hold off.
Mitchell has even asked lawmakers to take another crack at the poor, the young and the sick by finding ways to tighten eligibility for Maryland's most expensive social services programs.
The speaker said he and the Senate president hope to meet with Gov. William Donald Schaefer this week to explain their choices and try for an agreement.
"There's an unwritten understanding we'll be working with the governor on a budget with contingencies in it," Mitchell said. "These are unusual times, and you have to have unusual procedures."
In normal years, the governor submits a budget and the legislature cuts it.
But this year, because lawmakers and the governor agree that so many programs mandated by law must be cut, they have to cooperate.
The political problems are old ones -- who gets cut and by how much.
Two natural antagonists are wealthy Montgomery County and the cash-starved city of Baltimore.
In the cocktail of budget cuts and tax increases that the lawmakers ultimately mix, Montgomery County wants to protect itself from raids by the other jurisdictions. But Baltimore is asking for a long-term source of new money.
"Any agreement has to involve Montgomery County and BaltimoreCity," Miller said.
The legislative leaders will argue for keeping a scheduled $184.4 million increase in state aid for education.
At the same time, they will urge their colleagues to cut into propertytax grants, transportation revenue-sharing and a variety of other "mandated" state aid programs that help local governments.
Some of those grants also finance schools. So while the state gives with one hand, it may take away with the other, county officials say.
To offset the cuts, key legislators say they want to give Baltimore and the 23 counties authority to raise their local piggyback income tax rates from a maximum of 50 percent to 60 percent.