Assembly has its work cut out for it

Returning issues include gay rights, ethics, death penalty

$20 billion budget is key

Governor competes with lawmakers on spending priorities

January 07, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron and Jeff Barker | Thomas W. Waldron and Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly convenes in refurbished Annapolis digs this week eager to adopt a wish list of expensive education, health care and redevelopment initiatives - even as concerns mount that the state's recent run of robust budget surpluses may be ending.

Beginning Wednesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the state's 188 legislators will also take up several classically divisive issues - civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, a proposal to abolish the state's death penalty and collective bargaining rights for Maryland's public college employees.

Ethics issues will be on the agenda again for the 90-day annual session, this time in the form of a proposal to license and discipline State House lobbyists that comes in the wake of the federal fraud conviction of a leading Annapolis lobbyist.

But this legislative session might well be defined by lawmakers' decisions on how to handle the state's expected $20 billion budget for next year.

Glendening - who will propose a spending plan later this month that legislators can only accept or cut, not add to - is expected to include major increases in funding for mass transit, state colleges and "Smart Growth"-related projects.

"These areas are important to me personally, but I also think they're extraordinarily important to Marylanders," Glendening said.

The governor said his budget will be "slightly" larger than what legislators are expecting, but some lawmakers are bracing for a spending plan significantly exceeding the Assembly's self-imposed spending limits. That could force the legislature to make substantial cuts in the budget.

At the same time, key legislators are seeking several of their own big-ticket items, including significant new funding for public schools, both in Baltimore and statewide; more money for drug treatment programs; a major expansion of state-funded health insurance for low-income workers; and new investments to revitalize Baltimore's harbor area.

Altogether, it's too much, the governor said, even for a state in sound fiscal shape.

"They're all good programs, yet when you add them all up they're far greater than our capacity to fund," Glendening said. "But we'll come out with a good balanced budget that will meet my priorities, fund a lot of legislators' projects and remain fiscally responsible."

Although the state enters the year with a budget surplus of $395 million - out of a total state general fund of $10 billion - Republican legislators are nonetheless warning that Glendening and his fellow Democrats who control the Assembly are poised to spend the state into trouble.

"My colleagues and I are very concerned that we're continuing to grow the state budget as if the good times are here forever," said Sen. Martin G. Madden of Howard County, the Senate Republican leader. "I feel the warning lights are flashing all around Annapolis."

Democrats, naturally, disagree and point to the state's healthy reserves - nearly $1 billion.

"I don't think we're throwing caution to the wind," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "We've got a `rainy day' fund that is substantially in excess of our requirements."

School assistance

One of the biggest spending battles might well concern a relatively tiny slice of the budget - money to assist private schools.

Last year, Glendening narrowly won approval for $6 million on private school textbook purchases, and he's indicated he will seek $8 million for next year.

Even before it has been officially announced, the proposal has come under fire from key legislators and public-school advocates.

"The needs of the public schools aren't being taken care of," says Wanda Hurt, the Maryland PTA's vice president for legislative activity.

"If they approve money for private school textbooks a second year in a row, that will set a precedent that could hurt the public system."

While these budget battles play out, the Assembly will also grapple with several contentious social issues.

After an unsuccessful effort two years ago, Glendening is expected once again to propose legislation to add homosexuals to the list of minorities protected by Maryland's anti-discrimination law.

Advocates for the measure hope they built support for the cause during a series of public hearings in the fall documenting discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals.

But the proposal faces the same steep odds as in 1999, when it cleared the House of Delegates but died in a conservative Senate committee.

Glendening said he is not sure about the bill's prospects but said introducing it again "is the right thing to do."

In addition, he said: "The battle itself is productive. More people will be talking openly and freely about the discrimination that is going on."

The governor might be held captive by the timing of another emotional issue, the death penalty.

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