General Assembly opens, faces hard budget decisions

Lawmakers are sworn in

about one-third in both chambers are new in jobs

January 09, 2003|By Ivan Penn and Tim Craig | Ivan Penn and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

With freshman lawmakers scrambling to find their seats and a bevy of new political leaders taking their places, the 417th General Assembly session opened yesterday with restrained excitement as Annapolis geared up to tackle a tough budget year.

This 90-day session marks one of the more historic gatherings of the state's top officials and features increasingly diverse governmental leadership.

Along with swearing in the first new speaker of the House in nine years, delegates elected the first African-American woman as speaker pro tem, the No. 2 spot in House leadership.

And the majority Democratic legislature must conduct the state's business with a Republican governor for the first time in 36 years.

"Our collective goal must be to put aside our differences and work together," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in his opening speech. "If we have to disagree, let's do so in an agreeable fashion. ... We cannot afford partisanship."

But with a $1.2 billion deficit looming and battles already brewing over how to resolve the budget gap - including legalizing slot machine gambling and raising the gasoline tax - this session is expected to quickly become tense.

"I think it's going to get pretty bloody," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The first order of business was the swearing-in of the 141 delegates and the 47 senators. About a third of the lawmakers are new to their jobs.

In addition, delegates elected Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, as the speaker of the House. Busch replaces former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who lost in November's election. Delegates named Del. Adrienne A.W. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, speaker pro tem.

The election of Busch and Jones garnered enthusiastic applause in the House chamber crowded with local, state and federal officials from across the state.

"I think Maryland's elected officials reflect the broad cross section of the state," Busch said. "For the first time, the lieutenant governor is an African-American. For the first time, the speaker pro tem is an African-American. For the first time ever we will have two Hispanic-Americans. I think that's a broad brush reflection of Maryland."

In accepting her new post, Jones - who has served in the House since 1997 - told her colleagues that she felt a "deep sense of honor and gratitude."

"Maryland has always had a role in the history of this country," Jones said. "That tradition continues today. Here I stand, the first African-American female speaker pro tem to serve in this prestigious leadership position."

In the Senate, lawmakers paid tribute to another African-American, retired Sen. Clarence W. Blount. The Baltimore Democrat rose to become the first black majority leader of the Senate and the longest serving African-American in the history of the legislature. Blount, one of the most respected lawmakers in Annapolis, retired last year after 32 years in the Senate.

"We are all replaceable, but Senator Blount was and is peerless," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who defeated veteran Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman to replace Blount in the city's 41st District, made sure her first day was memorable.

Gladden, who served one term in the House, chartered a bus so 50 family members and supporters could travel to Annapolis to watch the ceremonies.

But the throngs of well-wishers overwhelmed the House and Senate galleries, forcing a large overflow crowd to view the proceedings on closed-circuit television in the hallway.

The cramped conditions left some disappointed. "I came down for a ceremony I can't see because I moved to give someone a seat," said Gloria Sherman, a Gladden supporter from Randallstown.

Even senators' family members had trouble getting a spot in the gallery. "I think we have to watch it on satellite TV," said Matt Haines, the son of Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican. "I brought my girlfriend and it is the first time she has been down here, so I really wanted her to get in."

But that inconvenience put just a little dent in Republican excitement. This opening day of the legislature was a rare celebration for the GOP, which for the first time in more than three decades begins a session in which a member of its party would sit as governor.

Republican delegates and senators - who traditionally had slim influence in Annapolis - could be seen yesterday slapping each other on the back, smiling and plotting how they will build on the electoral victory of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"This opening day is special," said Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican. "It has to be after 36 years."

Hooper said Republicans were still getting over the shock of electing the first GOP governor in more than three decades. "If you asked us a year ago, we would say, `We are going to do what? We are going to have who on the second floor?'" he said.

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