Session opens Wednesday

January 10, 1998

Session opens Wednesday


Staff Writer

Whenever the Maryland General Assembly meets for its annual 90-day session in Annapolis, one or two issues usually overshadow all others.

Two years ago it was state funding for two football stadiums and last year it was an income tax cut. But when Maryland legislators start their session Wednesday, the single largest issue facing them will likely be an estimated $260 million state surplus.

That result of the how the legislature will spend that money - or how it will not be spent - could have a wide impact on building new schools, cutting taxes and preparing the state when tougher economic times come.


Numerous plans have already been discussed, from pouring new money into school construction to cutting the state's property tax to accelerating the five-year, 10-percent income tax cut passed last year, or a combination.

"The problem is, we've already spent it five times over. It's sort of funny, but I can't walk down the street without four or five proposals thrown at me over what to do with the money," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

Poole and others said an election-year legislature eager to please its constituents with feel-good projects could set the stage for a financial disaster if the economy sours in the next few years.

"We got it now, but next year this time there might not be a surplus," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Some said they don't want to relive what happened in the early 1990s, when the legislature was forced to cut programs and raise taxes to make up for lost revenues during a recession.

"That would make us look like idiots and it will make Maryland look like a foolish state," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who sits on the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"I think people are starting to feel the good times have gone on for a long time and it can't last forever," he added.

For that reason, there will likely be a push to put much of the surplus into reserves to prepare the state for the next recession.

County lawmakers will also deal with several strictly local issues, including amendments to the tip jar gaming law and proposals to seek state help with the county's water and sewer debt.

Previously lawmakers had asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening for help, but were unable to secure state aid.

"We'll certainly try again. It never hurts to ask," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who chairs the county delegation.

But Munson said he doubts the state will help with the $55 million debt.

"The magnitude of the problem is so great that the state is not going to bail them out. The county is going to have to do it themselves. I wish I had something better to say, but I don't," he said.

Some lawmakers suggested any hope for securing state aid for the sewer debt will likely hinge on getting an agreement between the county and Hagerstown, which have separate systems.

"I think we need, as a delegation, to continue to push and nudge the county and city toward greater cooperation," McKee said.

An agreement between the city and county will also enhance the chances of getting state funds for a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns, lawmakers said. But Poole said even then the project will still need a "substantial private investment" and a guarantee that it will have uses beyond baseball.

"I just can't imagine this thing will fly if it is exclusively a private baseball stadium funded solely by taxpayer dollars," Poole said.

Lawmakers will also find themselves involved in their own personal bills. For Donoghue, that means trying once again to get passage of legislation that would set up a grievance procedure for people turned down for medical procedures by their managed-care provider.

The same bill died on the final day of last year's session when it got caught in a legislative logjam as the General Assembly adjourned for the year.

"That's going to be my major piece of legislation this year," Donoghue said.

Munson said there will likely be many health care bills, as many people are concerned that important health decisions are being made by "money people" instead of doctors.

"I think the General Assembly is concerned that that is interfering with the quality of medicine," he said.

Overall, Munson said the election-year atmosphere will dominate much of the legislative goings-on this year.

"A lot of people are going to be playing to the crowds back home," he said.

Donoghue agreed that the session will likely feature "a lot of people consumed with re-election," as many lawmakers try to make a big splash with their constituents back home.

"That might be good for a quote in the paper or a shot on TV, but not really of any substance," Donoghue said.

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