No Ordinary Legislative Session

January 09, 1994

In an ordinary four-year political cycle, the General Assembly session that starts this week would be a relatively inconsequential affair. Lawmakers would be more interested in plotting re-election strategy than legislating. Their aim would be to take safe, non-controversial stands that won't hurt their political campaigns.

But this is not an ordinary election year in Maryland. Uncertainty reigns in the House of Delegates after the unexpected resignation of former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and the ascension of the new speaker, Casper R. Taylor of Cumberland. Redrawn legislative districts are still subject to reshaping by a federal appeals panel. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is now officially a lame duck, with his power rapidly receding. And a controversy over a football stadium in Laurel and/or Baltimore threatens to complicate legislative business.

At least recent budget crises are over. Maryland's economy is slowly gaining steam, providing enough money for the governor to give state workers a 3 percent pay raise (the first in four years) and to increase general state spending in line with revenue advances. The brightening economic picture also makes it easier for officials to let the state's temporary "wealth tax" surcharge lapse.

Crime and punishment top the list of legislative concerns. "Get ,, tough with criminals" is a popular campaign slogan. There's already an avalanche of bills seeking a constitutional amendment to guarantee rights to victims of crime, speeding up death-penalty appeals and ending parole. Restricting handgun sales is more controversial. The governor will once again try to dTC get assault-style weapons banned; there are indications he might prevail.

Money for public schools also has caught the attention of campaigning legislators. An increase in local school aid, tilted in favor of the poorest school districts, is likely as is more money to ease overcrowding in schools.

Maryland's landmark 1993 health-care reform law may be tinkered with. Some health-care experts want the state to take steps to give more Marylanders access to basic medical insurance and to cut health-care costs. A big battle also is likely over efforts to ban all smoking in the workplace; lawmakers look askance at efforts to legislate through regulations, which is what the Schaefer administration wants to do.

An effort by the governor to form a much-needed gambling commission could run into strong opposition from rural lawmakers who don't want to offend the Moose, Elks and VFW lodges. But a legislative initiative to tighten procurement laws to prevent the contract abuses of recent years stands a better chance. And the effort to abolish legislative scholarship awards may finally succeed.

Meanwhile, the football stadium feud looms over everything. If this matter is resolved by mid-session, it shouldn't interfere with other matters. But if the stadium dispute persists, it could unleash bitter clashes pitting Washington-area lawmakers against city legislators. Such a divisive battle should be avoided at all costs.

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