Taxing Legislative Session


If there is a theme for the 1991 General Assembly session that begins a 90-day stand in Annapolis today it is the government's lack of money. The state is deep in the revenue hole, putting a crimp in every agency agenda. That could make this an unhappy meeting for lawmakers, who must face the public's wrath for decimating popular services or for raising taxes to keep these programs going. It is a no-win situation.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is in a similar bind. He plans to support a hefty gas-tax increase to keep the state's road-building and mass-transit priorities on schedule. But he may have to forgo tax reforms recommended by the Linowes commission. That means major cuts in existing programs to balance the budget. Mr. Schaefer won't win any popularity contest this year.

Forty-six new lawmakers will bring some fresh ideas to the State House. Within leadership ranks, both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have made changes in their top lieutenants, though the two chambers remain quite different: the disciplined House follows the speaker's lead; the unpredictable Senate retains its independence. Cooperation with the governor may be fragile and sporadic.

Abortion, which nearly strangled the 1990 legislature, will again be debated. This time leaders want no repeat of last year's near-disastrous filibuster. They have promised rapid votes in both houses on bills to liberalize state abortion law.

Campaign and ethics reforms, often non-starters in the past, stand a good chance this year, thanks to the overzealous fund-raising tactics and legislative activities of some lobbyists. A bill closing loopholes in the Open Meetings Law also could receive favorable attention.

A proposal controlling local growth already has led to protests. Counties fear a state takeover of local zoning; officials in Annapolis fear a continuation of the rampant scattershot growth patterns that threaten Maryland's environment and government's ability to pay for costly infrastructure.

Insurance matters will draw much attention. A no-fault insurance plan for drivers faces troubles in the Senate. Plans to help uninsured Marylanders get health coverage could fare better.

Another attempt to ban assault rifles is likely, and may succeed with the governor's help. But an effort to legalize off-track betting may have been dealt a fatal blow by the money and legal problems of harness-track owner Mark Vogel.

With the governor's fiscal cupboard as empty as it has been in a decade, there won't be much joy among lawmakers. And if more revenues have to be found to continue the state's road and bridge repairs it could, indeed, turn into a taxing General Assembly session.

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