Weary, wary, somber, legislators open session minus usual festive air Senate majority leader sees 'very contentious' 1996 General Assembly

January 11, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Frank Langfitt and Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

Whether weary from battling the remnants of a blizzard or wary about the potentially quarrelsome General Assembly session ahead of them, state lawmakers returned to Annapolis yesterday with much less of the festive air that normally surrounds such occasions.

With excess room in the visitors galleries, a light turnout of lobbyists and even a dearth of protesters, the event seemed somehow less eventful.

Add to that the gloomy specter of divisive issues ahead -- from state budget cuts that likely will result in layoffs of government workers to the controversial football stadium proposals in Baltimore City and Prince George's County -- and the mood could be described as almost somber.

"It may be a very contentious session," said Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat. "This is one of the most difficult budgets we've seen in the last decade or so."

Shortly after noon, the House of Delegates and state Senate convened for the largely ceremonial duty of re-electing presiding officers, reappointing committees and beginning their 410th legislative session.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. used the occasion to call for a legislative summit on juvenile violence and to say he remains committed to cutting income taxes, though he said legislators would not have enough information to make that decision until March.

He also cautioned legislators not to get caught up in acrimonious regional battles and later cited as an example the rift between Montgomery County and Baltimore over state funding of a football stadium at Camden Yards.

"The potential is there for geographic partisanship more than anything else," said Mr. Taylor, a Western Maryland Democrat. "I think the stadium issue is the most obvious example of that."

Still, the only battles fought yesterday were between legislators and their snow-filled driveways. Getting to the state capital was a more challenging experience than usual this year, particularly for lawmakers unaccustomed to two feet of snow.

Del. Clarence Davis called on the state fire marshal's office to give him a lift from his home at 32nd Street and The Alameda.

When the Baltimore Democrat arrived in Annapolis yesterday afternoon, he quickly found Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to forcefully express his thoughts about Baltimore's snow removal practices.

"For my street not to be taken care of is a crying shame," said Delegate Davis, whose Ways and Means Committee seat gives him a key vote on transportation funding. "They better put me first on the list next time."

Nevertheless, the weather didn't deter many legislators.

All 47 senators made quorum call, as did 135 of the 141 delegates -- far more than the 103 Speaker Taylor said he picked in a betting pool Tuesday night.

Legislators brought along fewer friends and family members for Opening Day this year.

Plenty of good seats were available in the House and Senate galleries, normally standing room only on the first day of the annual 90-day session.

Debbie Suter, daughter of Del. Diane DeCarlo of Baltimore County, had no trouble finding a sofa in the House lounge where she and her husband could attend to twin 2-month-old sons.

Without a snowstorm to keep visitors away, they said they probably wouldn't have been there.

"It was just so crowded with all the relatives last year," Mrs. Suter recalled. "It's better this year."

Perhaps the person most excited to be in the State House was Clay C. Opara, 30, the Baltimore delegate sworn in this week to replace Margaret H. Murphy, who retired.

However, when Mr. Taylor called his name, Mr. Opara had momentarily left the chamber.

"I'm impressed," Mr. Opara said after receiving an ovation from his fellow delegates when he returned. "I guess I'm as fresh as they come."

Missing from the assortment of VIPs was outgoing state Treasurer Lucille Maurer, who announced her resignation last week because of ill health.

A joint House-Senate committee is expected to recommend a replacement by late next week at the earliest.

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