Assembly's top issue is re-election Session opening Wed. as governor, all 188 lawmakers eye polls

'Probably won't be pretty'

Health care for poor, school aid, Pfiesteria on tap next 90 days

January 11, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers C. Fraser Smith and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

The Maryland General Assembly convenes in Annapolis on Wednesday to face a host of thorny issues ranging from dead fish to uninsured children. Each will be considered in light of the ,, most pressing issue of all to lawmakers -- re-election next fall.

With all 188 House and Senate seats as well as the governor's office up for grabs in November, legislators and Gov. Parris N. Glendening will use the 90-day session to score points that might register with voters -- sometimes at the expense of colleagues or good legislation.

"People get very aggressive and very competitive," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a two-term Baltimore Democrat. "It probably won't be pretty."

While no single issue, such as the stadium-funding debate of 1996, is poised to dominate the session, lawmakers will have to ** deal with several important matters, including expanding health care for low-income families, boosting state education aid and responding to the Pfiesteria outbreak that closed streams on the Eastern Shore last year.

But political concerns "complicate everything," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"The party that's out is trying to get in, and the party that's in wants to stay in," Taylor said of the Democratic-controlled Assembly. "All the pulling and hauling brings on the complications, slows things down."

Fortunately for Glendening and Assembly members, the state's affairs are in good shape as the election nears. The Maryland economy is chugging along, and tax revenues are soaring well beyond predictions, resulting in a state budget surplus of $260 million and growing.

"These are good times to be in government," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Ironically, the good financial news in an election year spells problems for the political process -- as everyone from the governor to the lowliest back-bencher has a plan for spending some of the state's money. In an election year, the stress only intensifies as legislators clamor for a piece of the budget to brag about back home.

"There's only one thing worse than having no money in your budget, and that's having too much money," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Senate budget committee. "Everyone has something they want to do with it."

Already, an unlikely coalition of Miller, Hoffman and Republican lawmakers is pushing to use some of the extra money to accelerate the 10 percent income tax cut, phased in over five years, that was enacted last session.

The most attention and the most pressure in the next three months will fall on Glendening as he looks to leave a good impression on voters in the final session of his four-year term.

Glendening has outlined an ambitious agenda, focused primarily increasing aid for both kindergarten-through-12th-grade and higher education, and expanding state health care for low-income families.

In formulating several expensive spending initiatives, he said, he is taking advantage of the "unique opportunity" created by the state's solid budget situation.

Glendening and others predict that a consensus will develop quickly on education funding and some other initiatives.

But nobody is talking about an easy solution to the session's No. 1 environmental question -- how the state should respond to the Pfiesteria outbreak, which killed fish and closed Eastern Shore waterways last summer and threatens to cause more trouble this year.

Scientists suspect that excess nutrients from farms, sewage-treatment plants and elsewhere were a major factor in the problems last summer.

Fearing that they will bear the brunt of any Pfiesteria plan, farmers, sludge haulers and chicken producers -- as well as their high-priced lobbyists -- have lined up to oppose any program that might hurt their operations.

But, with the voters watching, environmental activists say this may be a good time to push through strong measures.

"Here we have dead fish and sick people," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of Maryland Clean Water Action. "Citizens are hoping it can be solved this winter."

And, she said, "the environment is one issue that brings people to the polls."

The Assembly will grapple with another issue that affects the lives and health of voters -- managed care.

Taylor and the House Democratic leadership want to make it easier for members of health maintenance organizations to challenge their insurers' decisions to withhold coverage for various procedures.

Similar legislation nearly became law last year but died on the final night of the session in a dispute between the House and Senate.

Del. Michael E. Busch, the Annapolis Democrat who heads the House Economic Matters Committee, predicted it would pass this year. "It'll be a better piece of legislation," Busch said. "We've had an opportunity to fine-tune it."

Key House members, meanwhile, have overhauled legislation on another knotty topic -- casino-style gambling. Their bill would send the matter of legalizing slot machines directly to the voters in a November referendum.

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