The governor's weekly press conference began at a slow pace yesterday, then got slower.
"Anything new on Memorial Stadium?" came the first question.
"No," Gov. Harry Hughes replied.
"Anything new on prisons?"
"What's on your mind?"
"Beg your pardon?"
"What's new? Well, I . . . " The governor thought a second before launching into a 10-minute discourse on revenue sharing.
The queries were uninspired and the answers uninformative, but with reason. With three full weeks remaining in the legislative session, Hughes and the General Assembly seem to have found answers to most of the major questions facing the state: finding money for subway systems in the urban areas and roads around Maryland, finding more money for local schools, and developing a prison construction program to meet state needs and federal court demands.
There is still time, of course, for these measures to become snarled along the way to enactment, but legislative leaders agree this is unlikely. For example, three measures committing about $157 million to transportation and education needs won easy approval in the House today after only cursory debate.
So now, with the glamor issues dropping away from the center of the stage here, a long chorus line of less sweeping or expensive measures have moved in to command the legislators' attention.
With the big statewide issues, the ones that had the most potential for controversy all but resolved, said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, "we start to fight over little things, we just make little things big things."
"The rank-and-file delegates will get caught up in the hurly-burly of minor bills," added Del. Gerard F. Devlin, a Prince George's County Democrat who now has a little more time to lobby for his measure to have the state build an access road to Bowie Race Track.
"These things aren't minor to the sponsors or the people they affect," Devlin added.
This year there are more than 3,100 of "these things" -- or pieces of legislation -- to be disposed of by the General Assembly. In the past, hundreds of such measures have been quietly suffocated, without benefit of a vote, when debates or filibusters use up precious time in the closing hours of a session.
"Things have been going smoothly, which just means a lot of those other trashy bills will be passed," grumbled State Sen. Arthur H. Helton Jr., (D-Harford), the soul and inspiration of last year's last-minute filibuster.
"Oh no," chided his colleague, State Sen. Robert A. Douglass, a Baltimore Democrat. "I hope that by having more time this year we'll be able to sort out the trash from the rest of the legislation. We have time to settle down and pay some more attention to these other things."
What Douglass, who heads the Senate's black caucus, wants to devote his attention to is legislation broadening the state's set-aside program guaranteeing minority-owned contracting firms a percentage of state contracts.
What Montgomery County Republican Del. Luiz Simmons wants to see is more attention devoted to the passage of his bill limiting campaign contributions by corporations that do business with the state and also for his measure requiring the posting of prices at gasoline stations. "That could save $10 million for the consumer," he said.
And whether or not the transportation, education and prison issues are nearly resolved, Del Caspar R. Taylor Jr. (D-Cumberland), vice-chairman, of the House Economic Matters Committee, said his panel has more than enough to do.
"We've got all the interest bills, the unemployment insurance bills, the labor bills, right-to-work, things like that," Taylor said, adding that 70 bills were on his committee's voting list today.
"The smaller things are getting more attention, so the merit of the bill comes out further," Taylor said. "It's harder to play games -- you've got more people paying attention," he added.
And, with the most expensive statewide issues on the brink of resolution, "We can be more geared to the special interest issues."
But even in a legislative session when things have gone smoothly, "the sheer volume of all these secondary bills is overwhelming," said Devlin, who serves as vice chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Already, that group has a backlog of nearly 150 bills on which they have postponed votes because of a lack of information, or, more likely, the controversy surrounding the bill.
Also unresolved are measures even dearer to most legislators' hearts than their own bills -- the measures investing state money in some sort of construction project in their districts.
"We have almost $600 million in bond bill requests," said Appropriations Committee chairman John Hargreaves. "We have to pare that down to $225 million. This is housing rehabilitation, housing improvements, flood control management, you name it."
"This legislature has never had an orderly last three weeks," said Cardin, who is in the midst of his 14th year here. "We've never had that, but I've always wanted it. I'm not saying you're going to have that this year, either."
Almost anything, Cardin said, could still provoke enough of controversy to snarl the process -- something like the proposal to increase the loads that trucks could carry on Maryland highways, for instance. "But it would be nice to leave without seeing the panic on the people's faces on the last day," he added.