Most Maryland legislators love the prospect of a good legislative fight, with its secret meetings, impassioned speeches, inflamed emotions, but no one is looking forward to this year's fight, because no one can win it.
Beginning on Wednesday, it will be fought on treacherous terrain on which no sensible legislator is anxious to tread, a battleground shaped by a sluggish economy and a demanding budget, and the only weapon that can end the fight is probably a tax increase.
The argument will be over what kind of tax increase to enact. It is a fight everyone wishes could be waged in private; no one wants to be the general leading the charge.
Legislators are "darned uneasy about it," said House of Delegates Speaker John Hanson Briscoe (D-St. Mary's). At the end of the session, he said, "they can't say to their constituents, 'Look what we've doen for you.' Instead, it's 'Look what we did to you.' Certainly, it's not a popular idea, but the budget is $120 million short."
However, said Senate majority leader Roy N. Staten, (D-Balt, County). "That's one thing a legislator hates to do more than any other thing, pass a tax bill. It makes people so unhappy."
There is a discernable nervousness, an uncharacteristic reluctance in the voices and attitudes of legislators as Wednesday's opening of this year's session approaches.
Thoughtful legislators, men and women who know that more than 85 per cent of Maryland's budget is locked in by law, are talking of trying to reduce state spending by the $120 million Maryland needs, rather than raising taxes to generate the extra revenue.
Very few of them seriously entertain ideas of getting out of Annapolis in April without facing up to the need for a tax hike.
"A great many of us think we ought to look at where we can save money first," said Sen. Harry McGuirk. (D-Balt.) "Now, we have programs we constantly pump money into, with no results. Like drivers' education. We pay $5 million a year for drivers' ed, plus a subsidy from every county."
Can the legislature cut enough programs like driver's education to avoid a tax increase? "I don't see how," McGuirk said with a sigh. "I just don't see how."
Most legislators seem to agree that taxes, in one form or another, will be the dominant issue this session. There is talk of a 1 per cent sales tax increase, talk of a revision of the state's regressive income tax structure, a positive furor about curbing the rise of property tax assessments.
The stubborn issues that pop up at almost every session, legislative leaders say, will manage to force themselves into the General Assembly's consciousness as well.
The largest of those is expected to be prisons - where, when and how to build new ones. Maryland has a chronic shortage of prison space, but the problem this year is at the point where most observers feel it can no longer be put off.
Other familiar General Assembly issues scheduled to reappear this year are farmland preservation, collective bargaining and unionism for public employees, citizen efforts to rollback utility rates and medical and legal malpractice insurance rates.
Looming over it all is the uncertain image of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, who usually winds up setting legislative rows after the speechmaking is over. This is the second consecutive session to begin under legal clouds for Mandel.
He was indicted for political corruption in November, 1975. A mistrial declared last month after 14 weeks of testimony has kept the porsecutors' charges suspended over him without any answers from the governor.
Some politicians have already moved to separate themselves from Mandel if not to actually publicly criticize him. In a letter to Mandel made public two weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III, a 1978 gubernatorial candidate, wrote of "your administration" rather than the more usual "our administration."
When Lee speaks of Mandel, there is a total absence of condemnation. "I think the political people know Marvin made some mistakes, committed some indiscretions, but I don't think they think he's a crook," Lee said.
It is a phenomenon that occurs repeatedly. Politicians like Lee, eyeing an election in 1978, are taking public postures independent from Mandel, but private assessments indicate that Mandel has lost little clout and few friends in Annapolis as a result of the trial.
"I haven't lost any respect for him. I have a great deal of respect for Marvin," said Sen. Joseph Bonvegna (D-Balt.). Bonvegna recalled that Mandel once left his trial to meet with a group of irate Baltimore citizens concerned about plans to put a prison in Bonvegna's east Baltimore district.
"It takes a lot of moxie to do a thing like that," Bonvegna said. "A stand-up guy. I like a guy like that."
"There's a lot of sympathy out there for the governor - people saying let's not kick him while he's down," said Del. John Douglass (D-Balt.). "I don't think it's going to affect the governor in the legislature. A lot of people have worked with the governor over the years, and they're loyal to him."
While the prosecution's case failed to shock most mainstream politicians in Maryland, it did provide a 1978 election issue for political mavericks.
"The '78 campaign will deal with corruption in the state," predicted Sen. John Coolahan (D-Balt. County). "If (Baltimore County Executive Theodore) Venetoulis is a gubernatorial candidate, you can count on it.
"I think he (Venetoulis) sees the same aura surrounding the state in 1978 that allowed him to win in Baltimore County in 1974." Venetoulis won a surprise victory over an organization candidate in 1974, running on a reform platform in a year when the former county executive had been indicted and convicted for corruption.
The net effect of the trial, however, is likely to be a neutral one, according to most analyses.
"It has probably polarized things some," said Sen. Edward Mason (R-Allegheny). "His enemies are probably more enemies now, and his close friends are probably more loyal. But that vast majority in the middle will probably try to swim down the middle of the stream, covering their flanks for their own political wellbeing."
Political maneuvering and tax and budget concerns will take up most of the legislature's energies, legislators predict.Even the lobbyists, who represent the interests companies, the telephone company, and other businesses, say they will be most concerned with protecting their clients' financial interests from whatever tax changes the General Assembly makes.
The old issues will arise. Those most frequently mentioned are:
Prisons, Mandel will propose "a really comprehensive attack on the whole thing that involves capital projects, changes in the law, and administrative shakeups," a according to Lee. Some opposition to Mandel can be expected from Legislators like Sen. John J. Bishop (R-Balt. County), who argues that simply providing more prison beds is "a little bit facile," and favors beefed-up parole and probation efforts on Maryland's part.
Farm preservation. Rural legislators will makes another effort to fund a program under which the state would pay farmers in order to counter pressures on them to develop their land.
Collective bargaining. Currently, only teachers and transit workers in Baltimore have collective bargaining agreemets with the state. Pro-union legislators will continue their efforts to enact collective bargaining laws for other state employees.
Utility rates. Last year, a proposal to create a Citizen's Utility Board to enable citizens to compete with utility companies in hearings before the public service commission was defeated. The proposal and others like it appear to have somewhat greater support this year, and its proponents promise to push for its passage.
Malpractice. The legislature spent three years resolving doctors' malpractice problems, as skyrocketing malpractice insurance rates cause cries of anguish from doctors. Now, lawyers' malpractice insurance rates are rising, and pressures on the legislature to come to their assistance are mounting.
"I look for this session to be no better and no worse than any other session," said majority leader Staten. "There used to be a time when there'd be some sessions with no big problems, but now it seems these problems just multiply each year. You always have them."