Democrats are eager to legislate; Assembly convenes today; gas, electric prices top agenda; 'Bread-and-butter' session; 'Grim' GOP to seek spending limits, speedier tax cut


The Maryland General Assembly convenes today for its 1999 session with an agenda dominated by "bread-and-butter" economic issues and dictated by an emboldened Democratic Party.

Over the next 90 days, 188 lawmakers will make decisions affecting how much Marylanders pay for gasoline and electricity, how many millions are spent on school construction, and how much -- if any -- of the state's burgeoning surplus should go back to taxpayers.

Sensitive social issues such as late-term abortions and gay rights are likely to surface, but most lawmakers expect them to play a secondary role through the session.

Ethics issues, which hung over the 1998 Assembly session like a blanket of smog, could be dispatched early with the quick passage of a series of reforms proposed by a task force headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

The names of expelled state Sen. Larry Young and resigned Del. Gerald J. Curran, whose careers ended last session amid allegations of improprieties, were unheard yesterday as early-arriving delegates and senators poured into Annapolis.

The mood among the state's leading Democrats was euphoric as they gathered at an Annapolis hotel for a pre-session celebration of the party's strong showing in November's election and to savor their decades-long dominance in the State House.

"Democrats are more optimistic about life, about tomorrow, about making life better for people. And Republicans have more of a grim expression on their faces," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., whose House Democrats gained six seats for a 106-35 majority, crowed over the "disarmament" of some of the most outspoken Republican delegates.

"We have very few ballistic missiles left in the House of Delegates," Taylor told his gleeful fellow Democrats. The speaker expressed hope that this four-year term would lessen the regional conflicts that marked the 1995-1998 term.

Earlier yesterday, Senate Republicans held a news conference to present an agenda notable for its modesty on the issue of income tax reduction. Gone were the clarion calls for drastic tax cuts that drove the failed 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns of Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

In their place was a proposal to accelerate the phased-in 10 percent tax cut adopted in 1997.

"We wanted something we thought was doable," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican.

The Republicans, who failed to enlarge their 15-vote bloc in the 47-seat Senate, argued that Assembly Democrats and Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration were planning to spend too much of Maryland's more than $200 million surplus. They said the state should hold spending growth to 4.8 percent and fully implement the tax cut by 2000 rather than 2002.

"The only time the state of Maryland has gotten into trouble financially is when it has too much money to spend," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Republican.

Glendening dismissed the Republican proposal, even though he floated the notion of speeding up the tax cut during last fall's campaign.

"They ought to look at what the people were saying in the last election. They were happy with the 10 percent tax cut and that was no longer an issue," the governor said. He said his administration would use the bulk of the surplus for school construction.

Taylor said the limited scope of the GOP proposal showed that the tax cut issue was no longer working for Republicans.

"That tells me me that they're reeling from the election and they've lost their agenda," the speaker said. "We didn't take their agenda away from them. The public took their agenda back from them."

While Taylor said he believed a faster tax cut was off the table, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it was possible that Glendening's posture was a bargaining position that could be adjusted later in the session.

He recalled that the governor agreed to speed up the cut late in last year's session after improved revenue projections came in. "Hopefully, the same will be true this year," Miller said.

Other legislators said they expect the session to focus on close-to-home issues such as education spending, health care regulation and transportation.

"It's a bread-and-butter session," said Hollinger. She said that based on her phone calls, the "angriest" issue of the session will be a possible gas tax increase. Democratic leaders have talked about raising the state's 23.5 cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline by perhaps a dime to pay for transportation projects.

Del. Bennett Bozman, a Worcester County Democrat, said the "sleeper" issue of the session is deregulation of the electric power industry. Many Maryland businesses, eager for cheaper power, are pressing the Assembly to act.

"I think that's going to be very controversial. People have a fear of what it's going to do to the average residential customer," Bozman said.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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