Md. Assembly has its mind on cooperation

Some concerned Ehrlich will bring gridlock

others envision a collegial capital

`It's going to be ... interesting'

Focus is on budget, slots as session opens this week

January 05, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's 195th General Assembly comes to Annapolis this week amid uncertainty over whether the state's first Republican governor in more than three decades will bring partisan gridlock or a new era of interparty cooperation.

At one extreme are the pessimists who anticipate 90 days of stalemates, with leaders clashing on how to handle a suffocating budget shortfall and whether slot machines should help fill the gap.

Those who see a half-full glass - including Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - envision a more collegial capital where lawmakers forge bonds while munching on pizza and watching late-night sports shows inside the governor's mansion.

"My promise is to return it to the way it used to be," said Ehrlich, a former two-term delegate who spent the past eight years in Congress. "When I was there, we had good debates, and then everybody went out to dinner together. What I observed in Annapolis over the past eight years was a loss of that environment."

It's hard to predict which side will prevail, because Maryland state government is undergoing a transformation not seen in generations, while simultaneously coping with grave fiscal challenges.

"It's going to be spectacularly interesting," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "There are new leadership teams in the House and the Senate, and a new [executive branch] team on the second floor of an opposite party. It's a new and different dynamic, with a whole cast of players that people haven't seen before."

Start with the House of Delegates, which, like the Senate, retains its overwhelming Democratic majority. Nonetheless, 46 of 141 members are new, and incoming House Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County succeeds Casper R. Taylor Jr., whose nine-year tenure was the longest since Colonial days.

In the past month, Busch has created a committee, shifted one chairman and replaced two others. But even as the new speaker emerges as Ehrlich's staunchest opponent on slots, he is advancing a limited agenda and predicts slow-going on policy.

"The first year is always kind of a learning-curve year," Busch said. "The second year is always the most productive for a legislature, and for a governor."

On the other side of the State House, 12 of 47 senators are new. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller retains his post for the 17th consecutive year despite an ethics reprimand during the summer. But through retirements and election defeats, all four committee leaders have been replaced.

A hopeful Miller said he anticipates a "very positive" session "because we have nowhere to go but up."

The General Assembly will open Wednesday at noon with Gov. Parris N. Glendening in his final week in office, but even more change won't be far behind. Ehrlich takes his oath on Jan. 15, and between now and then, an embryonic administration will come to life.

To date, the Ehrlich regime has been slow to coalesce. The governor has yet to name a budget secretary or appoint Cabinet-level officers to head the departments of transportation, natural resources, environment, and many others.

"The Ehrlich team is going to be feeling their way around, looking for help, looking for assistance," Miller said.

Most elected officials agree that debate over balancing the state budget and legalizing slot machines as a revenue source will dominate the 13-week session.

Legislative analysts foresee a $1.2 billion gap between revenues and expenses in the $22 billion budget that will take effect July 1. Lawmakers are required to pass a balanced budget, so spending cuts and new revenues are needed to fill the chasm.

"The budget is going to be the 800-pound gorilla," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Perry Hall Republican and House minority leader. "My perspective is we ought to do nothing more than plug the hole in the dike with as little damage as possible and give the new administration a chance to take a serious looks at the structural deficit."

Ehrlich has promised to submit a spending plan that leaves funding for counties and cities intact, avoids layoffs of state workers, and makes no cuts in public safety or education.

Some lawmakers are skeptical that those goals can be accomplished. "It's Pollyanna-ish," Miller said. "It's naivete at the worst."

To balance the budget, the incoming governor's budget will include between $350 million and $400 million from one-time slot-machine operating license fees, a figure that the General Assembly will find hard to replace if it votes against gambling.

But some will try. Significantly, Busch has indicated that an administration-sponsored slots bill would stall in his chamber without all 43 Republicans as co-sponsors -unlikely, given some delegates' moral and religious opposition.

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