A Safe and Sane Time Was Had by All

April 09, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

It hasn't been much of a legislative session in Annapolis this year. No one expected a lot from this group of raw lawmakers. Thus, it comes as no surprise that little of momentous import has been enacted.

That's not to say this General Assembly has been a bust. Far from it, some worthwhile lawmaking was achieved. And surprisingly little in the way of harmful legislation has been approved. House Speaker Casper Taylor and Senate President Mike Miller deserve credit for prodding and pushing their colleagues to enact substantive ethics reforms, health-care modifications, vehicle-inspection changes and a decent workplace-smoking compromise.

But most of the big battles were put off till next year.

That was a sensible decision. This General Assembly contains so many wet-behind-the-ears legislators that nearly the entire 90 days was spent in learning how the system works. Not only were 40 percent of the legislature freshmen, but most of them came to Annapolis without any experience in bill-drafting and lawmaking. They'd never been subjected to the competing pressures exerted on a delegate or senator by constituents, businesses, lobbyists and colleagues.

They didn't know the issues, either. You can't pass far-reaching reforms without having a pretty good understanding of these topics. Sure, it looked simple on the campaign trail and it looked simple in ideological terms, but issues are rarely clear-cut. Which people do you offend? Which group is in the right? How do you know who is closest to the truth?

Come next January, these rookies will be seasoned veterans. They will know the issues fairly well and they will be familiar with the ins and outs of the legislative process. They'll be ready to tackle the big ones.

So will Gov. Parris Glendening. He's already proclaiming this session a monumental success. Yet this session has hardly represented a Mount Rushmore of achievements for him. He did have the good sense to compromise on the no-smoking ban and the vehicle-inspection changes; otherwise, he would have been run over by a legislative freight train.

He won most of his budget battles by not playing games with the spending programs, as Gov. William Donald Schaefer did. He cut the Schaefer spending plan by $235 million, saving legislators the unenviable task. It was a hold-the-line budget that gives Mr. Glendening a breathing spell so he can learn the ropes.

The governor also crafted a limited package of bills this session. He won passage of most of them, especially winning legislative agreement on a bigger economic-development effort. These bills weren't earth-shaking, though.

If Mr. Glendening learned one thing this session, it was the importance of compromise. He will need to do much more of that next session. And legislators will need to hone their own skills by then, too. It could be the Mother of Assembly Sessions.

A battle royal over casino gambling. A bitter regional dispute over dividing up transportation funds. A firefight over tougher gun-control laws. Another blow-up over abortions. A new round of doctors versus hospitals and HMOs versus doctors. A move to give state workers collective bargaining. Another round of anger over vehicle-inspection stations. The big tax-cut debate. A comprehensive -- and sweeping -- package of proposals to reinvent government from Mr. Glendening.

It could make 1996 a bellwether General Assembly session. But there is more.

Overlaying all this will be the presidential primary elections in Maryland on March 5, 1996 -- right in the midst of the 90-day session. Both Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly will be jockeying to gain tactical advantage. It will have an impact on virtually every issue in Annapolis.

So 1995's Assembly session was actually a good warm-up for the main event next year. It ought to be a humdinger.

E9 Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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