For the Assembly, Prospects of a Forgettable Session

BARRY RASCOVAR

January 10, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

This could be a curious 90 days coming up for the Maryland General Assembly.

Weakened leadership in both the House and the Senate, a lame-duck governor with meager public support, and a yearning among most politicos simply to maintain the status quo mean that 1993 may not be a year to remember.

As is usually the case in Maryland, only the governor seems able to energize the Annapolis scene. The state constitution provides the governor with such a huge power advantage that the legislature is often helpless to do anything on its own.

But since Gov. William Donald Schaefer is avoiding the kinds of ** major program innovations that characterized his first term in office, there may not be much in the way of blockbuster battles this legislative session.

Mr. Schaefer starts off the session, though, with at least one important ally. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell has turned into a Schaefer supporter, especially during the recent lottery controversies.

That gives the governor a big advantage. Mr. Mitchell is indebted to the governor for two reasons: Mr. Schaefer was instrumental in bailing out the speaker when a rump faction tried to pull off a palace coup last month, and the governor acceded to the speaker's pleas and appointed a key Mitchell aide to the Public Service Commission.

This is an important alliance for the governor, since it assures him a strong voice in the House and a good chance of getting his legislation at least halfway through the General Assembly.

But Mr. Mitchell is not nearly the strongman he was a few years ago. Discontent has grown measurably in the House. The coup plotters will be a constant concern. Unhappiness remains over the elimination of one of the House's six standing committees and the mid-term committee shake-up that followed.

Mr. Mitchell could spend much of this session looking over his shoulder, checking for signs of new unrest among disgruntled delegates.

At the same time, the speaker barely tolerates Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (and vice versa). Relations between the House and Senate are tense, at best. It won't take much for a civil war to break out.

Take the matter of health-care reform and legislation to beef up oversight of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland. These are vital issues, but since the two committees in charge of this legislation in the House and Senate have been at war with one another in recent years, the matters could get caught up in a turf feud.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell, as usual, will be on opposite sides of this dispute.

While the Senate president remains in control, his own powers are limited by the quixotic nature of the Senate, with its tradition of cantankerous, independent members. Mr. Miller's influence is further diluted by his inclination to oppose the governor publicly on issues, a habit that has poisoned relations between the two.

As has been the case in recent years, the overriding issue could be the economy and the state's less-than-sparkling revenue outlook. There may not be enough new money for expansive new programs. Just closing the budget deficit without -- horror of horrors! -- raising taxes may be the best legislators can accomplish.

Regional disputes have been billed as a likely source of contentious dispute this session, but this may be more hyperbole than reality.

Montgomery County legislators are still angry that their city colleagues failed to back them in attempting to block the governor's plan to end state aid for teacher pensions. There have been open threats of killing the Baltimore Convention Center expansion plans in retaliation.

But in politics, you can't stay mad at your colleagues for long.

Montgomery has a costly list of capital projects it wants approved. The city is in position to block any or all of these projects should Montgomery lawmakers stand in the way of the convention center bill -- thanks in part to the governor's support of the project and in part to the appointment of Baltimore's Howard P. Rawlings as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Besides, the convention center expansion is such a money-maker and economic development prize for the state that both Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell are likely to support it in the end. Montgomery seems to be out on a lonely political limb, once again.

For the past three years, legislators have been obsessed with one thing: finding the least painful way to close a perennial budget gap that totalled in excess of $2 billion. The Assembly is ready for a respite. No one seems anxious to take on any big controversies. And the governor appears willing to oblige. What takes place in Annapolis over the next three months may be more workmanlike than spectacular.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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