Lowered Expectations in Annapolis

January 10, 1993

With Maryland emerging ever so slowly from the recession, this year's General Assembly isn't likely to embrace any big-ticket items when it convenes Wednesday. Controversies will center on policy issues rather than money matters.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is taking a very cautious approach toward the state's revenues. That is only prudent. The worst thing Maryland leaders could do would be to climb out once again on a shaky fiscal limb with rosy revenue forecasts. Mr. Schaefer found that out the hard way in the last two sessions. He won't be fooled this time.

That means no pay raises for state workers for a third straight year and no money for new programs to help jobless workers or families on welfare. Instead, whatever extra dollars can be found will go toward restoring key services caught in the budget cutbacks of prior years.

The lone money issue likely to gain prominence is a planned $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center. The state would put up $100 million of this money, probably through revenue bonds paid off with tax money generated by the enlarged convention center. But Montgomery County lawmakers, still fuming from the city's failure to support its fight to preserve state payments for teacher pensions, have vowed to kill the convention center bill in retaliation.

That could prove difficult. Most top lawmakers seem to side with the governor. The bottom line is that the expansion will bring more economic development, a 1,000-bed convention hotel, many more conventioneers and millions more in state tax revenue -- even after paying off the bonds. It is a financial winner for all of Maryland.

High on the governor's list is a second bid to win approval for tough emissions standards for cars sold in Maryland. These so-called "California cars" are crucial if Maryland is to meet Clean Air Act mandates without clamping down on industrial activity in the state. It could also give a boost to Westinghouse, which is working on a new electric car to help reduce auto pollution.

Meanwhile, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has his heart set on merging a number of state departments to save money. He also wants to privatize BWI Airport this session. In both cases, he may meet resistance from a skeptical governor.

There seems little dispute in the legislature that the insurance commissioner should be given more oversight authority over non-profit health-care insurers, especially Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland. Other measures to make Blue Cross more accountable to the public may also win favor.

Everyone in Annapolis seems to have lowered his or her expectations for this year's General Assembly session. After the angry and anguished sessions of the recent past over budget cutbacks and tax increases, a 90-day meeting dealing with the state's other concerns holds considerable appeal.

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