`Edgy' capital session likely

General Assembly nervously awaiting ill economy's effects

Belt tightening is back

Redistricting, elections expected to increase anxiety

January 06, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

They've passed this way before, but it's been a while.

When Maryland lawmakers arrive in Annapolis this week for their annual 90-day legislative session, the debate will be dominated by painful budget negotiations reflecting a slumping economy and sluggish tax revenues.

After several years of heady spending and surpluses, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders are returning to a place they left behind almost a decade ago: one of belt tightening, of a shrinking state work force and of priorities delayed or denied.

"It is going to be a year of self-imposed self-restraint," said longtime State House lobbyist and former delegate Gary Alexander.

A coincidence of the calendar means that budget talks will be conducted in the most highly charged political environment in a generation.

Not only is 2002 an election year, when a new governor and all 188 members of the General Assembly will be chosen, but it is also a year when the lines for congressional and legislative districts must be redrawn. The two haven't coincided since 1982.

"It's going to make the legislature very edgy," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Because they have to face voters next fall - in many cases in neighborhoods where they have not run before - lawmakers will try to stay on good behavior for the next three months, observers predict.

Divisive topics such as gun control and abortion will be pushed to back burners, especially when fiscal matters are so pressing.

As legislators work to produce a balanced spending plan, their decisions will have a tangible impact on Maryland residents. One frequently mentioned possibility is a delay in the final 2 percent of a phased-in, 10-percent reduction in the state income tax rate.

For a Maryland family with earnings of $53,000, the state median household income, a postponement would mean paying about $75 more in taxes for 2002. The move would make $150 million available for the budget year that begins July 1. But there is disagreement on whether such a delay is a good idea.

"It's a commitment made. It should be a commitment kept," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

`Political dynamite'

Taylor called a delay "political dynamite" that could ignite in an election year. "Any incumbent's opponent will use it against them," Taylor predicted. "`You promised and you're reneging.' That's a tough pill to swallow."

Others think Glendening will try to spend the money.

"I firmly believe the governor is going to use the income-tax reduction as part of balancing his own budget and addressing his agenda," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Glendening aides said final decisions about the governor's spending plan will be released Jan. 15. "It will be a tight budget, but one that continues to maintain our priorities," the governor said.

He and his staff have spent several months scouring the current budget for savings. Through a hiring freeze and an across-the-board 1.5 percent spending reduction, they say, the current budget year will end with a slight surplus. But the governor says no major new spending will occur in the coming budget year, and accumulated reserves will be heavily tapped.

Glendening's position threatens the prospects for passage of a proposal by a blue-ribbon panel that studied whether Maryland is meeting its constitutional mandate to provide adequate and equitable education to its youngsters.

The panel, known as the Thornton Commission, says the state needs to devote an additional $1.1 billion yearly to schools, an amount that would be spent over several years. Some top lawmakers want to contribute between $100 million and $150 million toward that goal in next year's budget, but other leaders are skeptical.

The proposal "could not come at a worse time," said Miller, adding that major new spending "just cannot happen."

"We're in the middle of a recession, and we have to adopt a recession-type budget," he said.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a Thornton panel member, said the legislature might have little choice. The committee proved that unmet needs exist, she said, which lays the foundation for lawsuits that could force the General Assembly's hand.

Governor's legacy

Glendening would have preferred a rosier scenario for his final year in office. Having steered millions into environmental programs, Smart Growth and higher education, the governor must settle for maintaining funding for his priorities. He must hope his legacy has been created; he can't afford to buy one this year.

He said last week that he was "extremely pleased" with his administration's accomplishments over two terms. "We not only honored our commitments; we exceeded them," he said.

Glendening said he was relishing an "extra degree of freedom," because this is the first election year since the early 1970s that he is not consumed by raising campaign funds or preparing a race.

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