Budget-buffeted Assembly seeks fresh start Leaders believe worst is over

January 10, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Weary state legislators convene their annual, 90-day legislative session Wednesday hoping that their long budgetary nightmare -- $2 billion in spending cuts and the largest tax increase in state history -- is finally over.

Groggy from a three-year-long financial ordeal, polarized by infighting and partisan fights over higher taxes, and emotionally drained by the politics of abortion and redistricting, General Assembly leaders believe they are about to awaken to calmer, better times.

"There's a feeling that we're starting fresh, starting all over again, rather than in the middle of a [four-year] term," says Gary Alexander, the Prince George's County delegate who suddenly finds himself the speaker pro tem as the result of last month's failed attempt to overthrow House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent.

No one is saying that Maryland's economy has returned to the heady days of the 1980s, but revenues are inching upward, and there is a growing belief the state's economic problems have bottomed out.

Legislators unhappy with Gov. William Donald Schaefer's new revenue-raising keno lottery game are expected to try to stop it, but that would only create a new $150 million budget problem -- another shortfall hardly anyone has the stomach to face.

The lawmakers who will arrive at the State House at noon Wednesday hope they will be freed from the budgetary crises that have commanded their attention and forced the state to trim spending nine times in three years.

Governor Schaefer, Speaker Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, have all said they have no intention of supporting any increases in taxes or fees this session.

Rather, this year's General Assembly is more likely to be contentwith tinkering with the structure and functions of state government to give it a better fit with the economic realities of the 1990s.

Speaker Mitchell has already drafted a package of bills designed to save as much as $50 million by consolidating various cabinet-level departments. Other lawmakers are talking about consolidating mental health hospitals, turning certain government services over to private companies, and a variety of other proposals to "downsize" the cost and scope of state government.

Despite the huge cutbacks of recent years, Mr. Mitchell and others say state government is still saddled with what they call a "structural deficit" -- a structure of government that costs more to operate than there are revenues to support it.

"We have to make changes, or we'll have the same kind of helter-skelter budgeting we've had for the last two years," said -- the House Democratic floor leader, Del. D. Bruce Poole of Hagerstown. "This is just a starting point. The whole structure has to be redefined and revamped."

Last chance

House Republican Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County says that while she hopes the economy and state revenues improve, she fears a recovery could ease the pressure to make changes that the past three years have indicated are needed.

"I see this session as a last window of opportunity if we are going to see some changes in the way we do business at the state level," she said.

Mr. Poole agrees: "If the waters rise and the boat is no longer banging on the bottom, people will say, 'Let's move on to something else.' "

One other reason this may be the last year for such tough decisions is that the next session, 1994, is in an election year, when controversial issues are usually avoided if possible.

While nothing as difficult as abortion or huge tax increases is likely to dominate the '93 session, it nevertheless is likely to have its share of troublesome issues:

* Montgomery County lawmakers, angered by the legislature's decision in November to end a state program that paid the Social Security costs of teachers and other county employees, will be looking for ways to recover the lost funds. Some are suggesting changes in the formula by which the state distributes school aid.

But as with any funding formula, when one jurisdiction tries to get more, another is bound to get less, and that tends to cause problems.

* Mr. Schaefer is again planning to introduce legislation to restrict theavailability of military-style assault weapons, although nothing so far indicates that the measure is likely to have more success than it has had the past couple of years.

* The rising cost of providing medical care for the poor continues to outstrip the state's ability to raise money, and efforts to slow the expansion of Medicaid costs are again likely to occupy the time of House and Senate budget committees.

* To help combat Maryland's air pollution problems, Mr. Schaefer NTC also has vowed to push for the second consecutive year for so-called "California car" legislation. The bill would impose standards -- more stringent than the federal Clean Air Act requires -- on new cars and trucks sold in Maryland.

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