Coffers full, as Assembly sets to open

Thanks to windfall, long-delayed projects and tax cut are on table

More than $1 billion surplus

Legislative agenda also includes ethics, crime and health bills


The General Assembly returns to Annapolis Wednesday buoyed by breathtakingly good fiscal news that will ease the pain of such contentious issues as gun control, collective bargaining and legislative ethics.

Many of the toughest decisions during the annual 90-day session will be the kind politicians dream about -- decisions about which long-delayed projects get funded from the state's more than $1 billion budget surplus and how big a tax cut to give the folks back home.

Lawmakers have been stunned during the past year by the state's strong fiscal performance, which is built on two developments -- a strong economy producing soaring tax revenues, and the first payments from Maryland's $4.1 billion settlement with the tobacco industry.

"I think either one by itself would have been a major event," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and one of the Assembly's fiscal experts. "The two of them together just boggles my mind."

The windfall has prompted social activists, legislators, local officials and countless others to jockey for money for everything from campus buildings and theaters to schoolhouses and waterfront redevelopment.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he will commit major portions of the surplus to building schools and campus facilities, and to long-range projects such as cancer research. But he says he will resist spreading the state's money around too widely.

Chance for long-term impact

"I don't want to do anything an inch deep," Glendening says. "We have an opportunity to sink roots real deep with some of these things."

Many long-sought programs might finally get major new funding. The question is how much.

Glendening is expected, for example, to propose a $10 million increase in state funding for drug-treatment programs. Most years, that level of increase would be considered dramatic, but legislative leaders such as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. say it's not nearly enough.

"With the economy in the state today, there's absolutely no excuse for us to ignore the vitally important issue of drug treatment," says Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat.

A note of caution

Lawmakers, while relishing the chance to address many state needs, nonetheless seek to be cautious about funding significant new continuing programs -- as opposed to one-time expenditures on bricks and mortar.

"You don't want to make foolish mistakes and assume it's forever, and build some brand-new wonderful programs that you can't afford down the road," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Among those looking to share the state's abundance will be parents of students in Maryland's parochial and private schools, who are seeking millions of dollars in aid to purchase textbooks.

Glendening's expected embrace of the idea will likely set off a fierce battle in the legislature, with teachers unions, civil libertarians and public-school advocates leading the opposition.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will be among those in favor of the spending. "It's an expenditure that would not have been considered if times were tight," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "But it's a fairness issue, and I think it's an issue we can afford to deal with at this point."

Tax relief

Miller and other Democratic leaders are sounding like their Republican colleagues by advocating an acceleration of the 10 percent income tax reduction enacted in 1997 and scheduled to be fully phased in by 2002. A decision on how quickly to provide the tax relief will likely come near the end of the 90-day session.

Also likely is a cut in the state's inheritance tax -- a move endorsed by Glendening, Taylor and Miller.

Beyond the big decisions on the budget, Glendening has prepared a relatively modest agenda for his sixth Assembly session. The highlight is his "smart gun" measure.

The bill, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, is expected to be based on a task force report last fall that called for all handguns sold after Jan. 1, 2003, to be equipped with technology allowing only authorized users to fire them -- as long as such technology is available.

The bill would require all handguns sold in Maryland to be equipped with a trigger lock.

"It's absolutely the right thing to do," Glendening said. "People are so frustrated by the level of killing."

While the governor promises to use "the full resources" of his office to get the bill passed, pro-gun advocates predict legislators will be skeptical, given the unanswered questions about the technology.

"I believe it's going to crash and burn," said John Josselyn, lobbyist for the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. "You can't mandate technology."

Another ethics controversy

Just as gun control tends to return every year, an embarrassing ethics controversy will cloud the Assembly's opening for the third consecutive year.

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