General Assembly '93: It Was All About Money

April 18, 1993|By FRANK A. DeFILIPPO

The 1993 session of the General Assembly was a remarkabl gamble with public policy that will be remembered less for what the legislators actually did than for the uncertain forces they set in motion.

Legislators bet the house on health-care reform. They rolled the dice big-time on keno. And they bet $150 million that a spruced-up Convention Center will resuscitate Baltimore's faltering convention business. Yet nobody really knows whether the bodacious wagers will pay off.

The health-care reform law is a blank slate -- an important social contract, but still a blank slate. There's no evidence that it will work, nor any information to the contrary. We won't know until the new seven-member Maryland Health Care Access and Cost Commission has several years to accumulate and review data on the overall health-care industry in Maryland. But Maryland was first, and that says a lot about our adventurous spirit.

The new and improved Convention Center is another case in point. Over the objections of Montgomery County senators and a handful of others, the meeting-hall expansion was touted as a statewide industry. But Gov. William Donald Schaefer's bricks-and-mortar project cost more than the widely trumpeted $150 million. In Annapolis, pork is power. That's what it took to ease the way for the center's expansion.

To lock up Prince George's County votes cost $82 million for a performing-arts center in College Park and $4 million for magnet schools. To soften the blow in Montgomery County, there was additional money for school construction and $4 million to help remove the smudges from downtown Silver Spring, as well as $4.1 million in additional education aid and $2 million to help revitalize Rockville. Montgomery County's legislators had the best of both worlds: They were able to vote as a bloc against the convention center at the same time their county received a handsome payoff.

All in all, millions in pork-barrel projects were tied to the expansion approval. Nobody ever said democracy comes cheap.

Legislators barely nicked the governor's $12.7 billion budget request, slicing off $200 million to bring state spending more into line with realistic growth assumptions than the 5 percent Mr. Schaefer used.

Still, the budget is built on a wild card. It is based on money the state may not collect. Mr. Schaefer is relying on $100 million that keno is supposed to produce. Already the pencil-necks in Annapolis are predicting that keno will fall short of the $50 million it's supposed to yield by July 1 and way short of the $100 million hoped for in the next fiscal year.

Legislators pronounced the 1993 session productive, workmanlike, congenial and a rip-roaring success. By most measures, it was.

Yet there was, too, a quirky, brooding undertow to the 1993 session that lawmakers were able to overcome only in the last couple of weeks. This came close to being remembered as the Arnick/Scholarship/Keno session.

For 10 days at the session's front end, the Assembly's agenda was subsumed by the confirmation hearings of one of its former colleagues to a Baltimore County judgeship. Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Arnick was forced to withdraw after advocates for battered-spouse legislation testified that he had used vulgar and demeaning language during a dinner meeting with them. The unforgiving public demanded Mr. Arnick's scalp and got it.

The House and Senate played games of chicken with killer bills -- one to eliminate $7 million in patronage scholarships, another to abolish keno. Both bills died, but the Senate scholarships are more than likely due for a public killing next year to gain political capital just before an election.

More important than what the session did or didn't do is how it shaped the immediate future. Actions this year affect the dynamics of the next and final session in the four-year cycle, as well as the 1994 elections.

We will see the first effects of legislative reapportionment. As the 1994 elections creep closer, many lawmakers who were shuffled by the mapmakers will be representing their old districts while also campaigning in their newly reshaped districts.

Between the laws of nature and the laws of politics, there could be a massive turnover in the membership of the General Assembly. Incumbents will be running against each other in several instances. The infighting between Sen. Paula Hollinger and Sen. Janice Piccinini, for example, had an impact on the Assembly's public agenda as well as the inner workings of the legislature.

In addition to reapportionment, many long-term incumbents -- as well as others who have tired of the Annapolis grind -- have announced that they will not be running for re-election. Among them is the redoubtable Sen. Frederick Malkus of the Eastern Shore, a 46-year veteran of the Assembly and the Senate's speaker pro tem.

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