Gov. Harry Hughes' desk was almost empty today, save for six pages of charts set up by gubernatorial aides to track the progress of the administration's legislative proposals. The successful measures had been highlighted with a yellow marking pen.
On page after page, bill titles had been covered over with solid blocks of Day-Glo yellow.
Hughes got almost everything he wanted from the legislature this year, though not always in the exact form he had originally envisioned. So, in fact, did the legislative leadership. At today's morning-after press conference, the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president spent 15 minutes drenching one another with praise.
In this, the third straight year of the problem-solving budget surpluses in Maryland, almost everyone in the State House except the most ardent fiscal conservatives got what they wanted out of the 1980 General Assembly. There was enough money, for instance, for Hughes to put forward transportation and education aid proposals that had something for every jurisdiction.
But even as they congratulated one another, Hughes and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin were expressing concern that a downturn in the national economy could bring the era of the surplus to an end.
"The budgets going to be tight next year," Hughes said at the press conference today. Added Cardin: "I would not be surprised if we had an extremely tight year next year."
Republican Del. Raymond E. Beck, pointing to the legislature's tendency to build new programs around the unexpected extra revenues, said. "It's got to end somewhere. We've got to live within our means or make our tax structure less inclined to track inflation."
That time may be close at hand. Already the state seems certain to lose its federal revenue sharing, and the rate of increase in sales tax receipts for January and February fell well below the pace of the year before. Also, state officials worry that if the District of Columbia introduces its own lottery, Maryland's lottery revenues will inevitably decline.
"I get the feeling state government is caught in a squeeze play," Hughes said in an interview yesterday. "The federal government's cutting back on federal aid but not relaxing the mandates on federal spending.
"And on the local level, there's a strong desire to hold down on the property tax . . . so local governments are asking for more state aid. And here we are caught right in the middle."
When the time comes to cut, Hughes said, the first programs to suffer would be those providing state money to local governments. "The state's first, responsibility is to meet the needs of the whole state" -- through the education, health and welfare programs which state government operates.
Despite all this, Hughes refused to be pessimistic. He said his next legislative program will be less ambitious, concentrating largely on new programs for the mentally retarded and on the needs and problems of the state's university and community college system.
"You may have to do more with less," Hughes said ". . . but when you don't have a lot of money, it's easier to say no."
Cardin echoed the same theme, saying, "Its tougher for legislature during a surplus year because people expect more. When everybody knows there's no money, they don't ask for as much."
Whatever the future may hold, the governor and the legislative leadership certainly left this session with almost everything they sought. But it was a program built around the surprising boons of inflation, which drove costs up but drove income and sales tax revenues up even faster.
The governor took care of the problems that demanded his attention by "plastering them over with money" as Republican Sen. John A. Cade liked to say. That same tendency bothered some of the legislature's fiscal conservatives, who had been calling for direct tax relief for the state's citizens and had advocated built-in limits on government spending.
As usual, scores of legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, introduced tax relief proposals this year. But, with the governor and legislative leaders such as Cardin turning a cold shoulder to the proposals, almost all the most far-reaching bills died.
When the state's predicted surplus reached its peak in late February, there was a brief flurry of interest in tax relief on the part of Hughes and Cardin, but as sales tax receipts began to level off, these ideas were abandoned. The only piece of tax relied enacted this year was a measure making the first $200 in savings account interest exempt from the state income tax.
"We felt you couldn't do both -- you couldn't be proponent of transportation and education aid proposals and of direct tax relief," said Cardin. "You had to make a choice, and we chose the aid packages."
"There's an old saying around here that no substantial, visible tax relief comes until the last year of a four-year term," said Beck. "Then you'll see all kinds of scurrying and scratching around with all sorts of (tax relief) proposals."
Hughes and the legislative leadership, however, insist that the $157 million in state funds going for local transportation and education needs are in fact a form of indirect tax relief. Without this influx of state revenues, they assert, local governments would have to provide the necessary revenues by raising their property tax rates.
Furthermore, Hughes noted that the legislative successes of the 1980 session were not all helped along by excess revenues. On issues where money made little difference -- the proposals to revamp the state's prison system and to reorganize the courts in Baltimore City -- it was either compromise, negotiation or persuasion that pushed the legislation to enactment.
Even Sen. Edward J. Mason, the Republican minority leader and often a critic of the administration's policies acknowledged that the governor had "adequately addressed" the state's pressing need for more prison space.
"I'll have to give them a star for that," said Mason, in the session's final moments Monday night.
But the monetary issues by far dominated this legislative session.
And as Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore) noted. "When you have plenty of money and you can hand out lots of goodies, there are no problems. That was the story of this session."