Smooth session expected

January 09, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

With an election ahead and discontented voters back home, Maryland's lawmakers will begin their 90-day session Wednesday with an eye on improving their image by getting tough on criminals, reforming parole and fighting anything that resembles a tax-and-spend proposal.

Some of the 188 legislators say they will return to Annapolis more relaxed than in recent years, when their sessions were driven by severe budget problems or emotional issues such as )) abortion.

"The black and bleak clouds of the recession are gone, and people are tired of fighting," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat. "I don't think you're going to see the kind of bare-knuckle brawl you had in previous years, and most legislators will be focused back home on re-election."

They face a suspicious electorate at home, which for some is LTC brand-new territory as a result of redistricting. Many will not return next year, retiring by choice or by the vote of their constituents.

"There will continue to be an anti-incumbent feeling by the public," predicted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat.

As a result, reforms dealing with ethics and political perks stand a better chance than they did last year. Tax proposals are expected to be big losers, as lawmakers hope voters forget they raised $500 million in taxes two years ago during the recession to keep the state afloat.

The controversy over Jack Kent Cooke's plan to build a Redskins football stadium in Laurel is expected to dominate early in the session, pitting the Washington suburbs against Baltimore.

But No. 1, overall, will be cracking down on crime -- issues of parole and probation, mandatory prison sentences, victims' rights and "trying to grapple with how we stop this insanity," said Casper R. Taylor Jr., the Cumberland Democrat who is certain to be elected speaker of the House of Delegates Wednesday.

"There is a lot of interest in gun control and looking at the parole system with an eye toward its abolition, but certainly its reform, in the absence of its abolition," said Del. Kenneth H. Masters, the Baltimore County lawyer tapped by Democrats to be their floor leader.

Lawmakers plan to sponsor bills that would abolish parole for some or all prisoners, open parole hearings and require the Parole Commission to use guidelines when deciding whether to punish parole violators.

"I'm very much concerned about these people who get out on parole, get reported [for parole violations], and nothing happens, and they commit new crimes," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crime victims are expected to reap some of the rewards of the latest backlash against offenders. Several top lawmakers predict success for a Schaefer administration bill that would include victims' rights in the state Constitution.

Heavy on symbolism, the proposal would make it easier for victims to assert several rights already granted to them. If passed, the constitutional amendment would be placed on the November ballot for voters to decide.

As the nation focuses on violent crime and the availability of guns, the Maryland legislature will be under more pressure to outlaw some rapid-firing, easily concealed assault pistols.

Senator Baker's conservative committee has killed similar assault-weapons bans for the past three years, but this year Mr. Miller suggested a way around it.

He or others would introduce minor gun control bills that could survive a committee vote.

Once such a bill reaches the full Senate, Mr. Miller said, gun control supporters could try to amend it to include an assault-weapons ban. That way, all 47 senators would have their first chance to vote on it as a group.

"I'm not advocating that as a tactic," Mr. Miller said, although by mentioning the idea he appeared to be sanctioning it.

The House has passed bans on assault weapons in previous years, but a new speaker and changes in its Judiciary Committee roster could affect the bill's chances this year.

Probably the largest force that will come to bear is the November election and legislators' perceptions of their constituents' wishes. Lawmakers are more jittery than usual this election year because some will be running in new districts created after the 1990 census.

Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a public interest group, hopes such concerns will tip the balance in favor of ethics and campaign finance reforms.

"I'm optimistic the legislature will pass several reforms in 1994 to demonstrate to the public that it cares about the public's lack of confidence in government," Mr. Andrews said.

In particular, he hopes lawmakers will abolish one of their most cherished political perks, the $7 million legislative scholarship program.

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