Assembling in anxious times

Security, budget, redistricting are on Md. legislators' minds

January 10, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Lawmakers from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis yesterday for the start of the 416th General Assembly session with concerns about security and budget woes looming large.

New security procedures put in place since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced even the most senior legislators to dig through their wallets in search of proper identification, and the national recession elicited warnings about the tough choices that will be made over the next 90 days.

Yet with the 2002 Assembly bringing political redistricting - and the fall elections right around the corner - both the Senate and House of Delegates crackled with the nervous energy that comes from 188 politicians waiting to learn their fates.

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening made his traditional visits to both chambers, lawmakers eagerly looked for signs of how their districts will be shaped for the next decade.

"Did you bring something for us, governor, like a map of the state of Maryland?" asked Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, drawing nervous laughs from his Senate colleagues.

Glendening finally released his vision of how to divide up Maryland's political districts late yesterday afternoon. That map will become law in 45 days unless the legislature acts to change it - unlikely, despite what are expected to be lots of loud complaints.

"I know that there are people in the room who are not happy, not satisfied," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. told the chamber. "Quite honestly, I'm not satisfied."

In addition to redistricting, legislators are expected to tackle proposals to allow slot machine gambling, increase funding for public schools, impose tougher environmental protections for coastal bays, raise the salaries of lawmakers and judges, and temporarily halt executions.

But those debates will occur later. Yesterday was an opportunity for legislators to display their sensitivity to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and America's military action in Afghanistan.

In the House, Imam Mohammad Bashar Arafat, director of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, led the opening prayer.

"It occurred to me that one of the priceless legacies that this little state of Maryland has that makes us the envy of the nation is the legacy of religious tolerance," said Taylor, who invited the imam. In the Senate, Miller asked a former page, Brooke Steuart, to sing the national anthem.

Both chambers were quick to unanimously approve resolutions expressing sympathy to the families of victims of the attacks.

The effects of Sept. 11 could be seen across the State House campus -increased security and the metal detectors greeting visitors.

"Most of us who have been around a while remember being able to wander aimlessly through this complex," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "Because of the events of Sept. 11, those days are over."

Even legislators were forced to show proper identification - and those who didn't were forced to wait in line and receive bright yellow visitor tags.

"They recognized me, but I didn't bring my identification tag with me today," said a sheepish Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat who has served in the Senate since 1971. "I'm going to go home tonight, bring it back here and lock it in my desk so I don't forget it. But today, I'm a visitor."

Lawmakers grimaced when asked about the tough budget decisions that await them.

"As we face a most challenging session, we have a storm approaching," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Nevertheless, Glendening struck an upbeat note for the legislature, saying the "state of Maryland is very strong."

And Miller said he believes the Assembly can find a way to move forward on a proposal from a state task force to boost public school spending by $1.1 billion per year.

For political leaders not based in Annapolis, the opening day of the session traditionally marks a time to see and be seen. Yesterday was no exception.

Both of Maryland's U.S. senators, two members of the House of Representatives and six of the "Big Seven" municipal executives visited one or both of the chambers. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was the only leader of Maryland's seven largest metropolitan jurisdictions not to be spotted during opening ceremonies.

Some former lawmakers also sized up the scene. Tommie Broadwater Jr., a former Prince George's County senator who lost his seat after being convicted of food stamp fraud in 1983, dropped by, saying he was "getting the feel" of Annapolis again. Broadwater plans to run for a new Prince George's Senate seat created through redistricting.

Opening day marked a beginning and an ending in the Senate.

Sandra B. Schrader was sworn in to complete the term of former Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican who resigned to focus on his insurance business.

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