- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

ANNAPOLIS After three years of economic good times, Maryland lawmakers begin the final session of their four-year terms Jan. 9 facing harsh economic realities brought on by the national recession.
Instead of instituting popular new spending programs, the 188 senators and delegates will be forced to approve painful budget cuts just months before most of them ask voters to send them back to Annapolis for four more years.
An election-year gift of tax cuts is out of the question. Instead, the legislature may have to delay an income-tax cut scheduled to take effect tomorrow to keep the state budget balanced.
"Obviously the budget is going to be a difficult issue," said Delegate Alfred Redmer of Baltimore County, the new Republican leader in the House of Delegates.
"We have a lot of unmet needs. At the same time, we've been spending too much money," he said. "There is going to be a dramatic debate both over the number of dollars that we will spend and, more importantly, the priorities that we are going to fund adequately."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat, said the fact that it is an election year will make it a little more difficult to pass a balanced budget.
"People are preoccupied with preparing their election strategies and their campaigns," he said. "They are a little more conscious of their message to the voters."
But Mr. Taylor said the legislature will do what it has to do to balance the budget before the session ends April 8.
While debate over the budget is expected to dominate the 90-day session, many legislators will be equally interested in two politically charged issues: the drawing of new districts for election of members of the General Assembly and of the U.S. Congress.
The agenda for the session will include proposed pay raises for lawmakers and top statewide elected officials, an anti-terrorism package stemming from the September 11 attacks, environmental and drunken-driving legislation, and slot machines at racetracks.
Lawmakers will learn the details of their budget dilemma when Gov. Parris N. Glendening submits his budget to a joint House-Senate session Jan. 16.
The broad outlines of the problem already are known.
Fiscal analysts are predicting a slight decline in tax revenues for the current fiscal year and only slow growth for fiscal 2003, which begins July 1. That could create a gap of perhaps $1.5 billion between available money and what the state would spend it if were doing business as usual over the next 18 months.
Offsetting the bad news is the fact that the state still has about $1 billion in reserve funds, about half of which will be available to balance the budget. Mr. Glendening and the legislature have a variety of other options, including delaying the final 2 percent of the 10 percent tax cut approved in 1997, and budget cuts, such as the 1.5 percent reduction in agency budgets already ordered by the governor.
Mr. Glendening has promised he will submit a budget that is balanced through June 30, 2003, and that it will contain a "rainy day" fund of about $500 million to help retain Maryland's AAA bond rating.
State Sen. Robert Neall, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the budget situation over the next 18 to 24 months could be worse than the fiscal problems the state experienced during the last recession in 1992.
He said the legislature must make whatever cuts are necessary because "we've really only got one good chance to get it right."
"It certainly won't help this being an election year and a year when we are considering new legislative districts," Mr. Neall said.
Next to the budget, redistricting may be the most difficult issue facing lawmakers.
Mr. Glendening has the upper hand, especially in drawing new districts for election of the 188 lawmakers. The plan he will present next month will become law unless the House and Senate can agree on an alternative version. In the end, Mr. Glendening's plan probably will become law.
The legislature also must pass a bill drawing new district lines for the eight members of Congress.
Because of the financial problems, there are unlikely to be any costly new programs this year.
Mike Morrill, Mr. Glendening's communications director, said the governor will not be concentrating on new initiatives except in one area.
The governor, Mr. Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's County Democrat, are working on new laws that would improve Maryland's ability to deal with terrorist threats or attacks.
"That's the one area of the budget that has been exempted from the 1.5 percent cuts," Mr. Morrill said.
Mr. Taylor said House leaders will back a package of bills that will include a ban on open containers of alcoholic beverages in moving vehicles and stricter penalties for repeat drunken drivers.
Even with the budget problems, special interests groups are expected to seek more funding for health care and education. But Mr. Morrill said there will be little if any money for new spending programs.
"It's going to take a little while for people to realize that there really isn't money for new initiatives," he said. "That's not just a talking point. It's reality."

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