Maryland's General Assembly had been in session for just a few minutes when a woman clad in black flounced down the aisle of the State Senate chamber and handed President Jim Clark a huge bouquet of helium-filled balloons, compliments of a local company.
"We hope everything goes off with a bang," the woman said, leaving Clark to stand somewhat awkwardly before his colleagues, holding the bobbing green, pink, blue and yellow balloons, with no place to anchor them.
The balloon-bearing woman may have voiced the first wish of the 1981 session that didn't come true. Hundreds more are expected to be scrapped by the time the session -- expected to be the most fractious and penny-pinching in five year -- ends in April, and so there was a noticeably restrained tone to the opening day proceedings.
The legislators who milled around the marble halls between the House and Senate chambers appeared more subdued than in past years as they waited for the session to convene at noon. "It's a bad session," Del. Tim Maloney (D-Prince George's) mutted afterwards. "The money problems have everybody down. And Santangelo . . . the whole works."
Maloney was referring to the first official action of the House of Delegates -- a unanimous vote to investigate his Prince George's colleague, Del. Francis J. Santangelo, for an alleged ethics violation -- and to a sharp, recession-related drop in state tax revenues that has forced cutbacks in all state departments, turning the 1981 session into little more than a budget cutting term in which almost everybody stands to lose.
The bleak financial outlook hung even heavier over the legislators because the House and Senate had no distractions on their agendas, besides the Santangelo affair.
Indeed, legislators seemed more animated in grumbling about a vexing, new telephone system recently installed in their offices (at a cost of $1 million) than when they talked about the 1981 session.
When Del. John Hargreaves (D-Caroline County), the gruff and sometimes controversial chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was asked if his panel was responsible for the new phones, he barked: "Anything that's bad, I'm responsible. Anything that's good, somebody else is responsible."
Then there was "Fickergate," a controversy among the idle members of the House of Delegates that began last week when the legislature's bill drafting agency -- and the press -- received what appeared to be a request by gadfly Republican Del. Robin Ficker of Montgomery County for a "pornographic cookie control act."
Ficker quickly denied responsibility for the measure, which came in the aftermath of attempts by a Moral Majority group to ban the sale of x-rated gingerbread men in an Annapolis store, and asked for an investigation of how his personal stationery had been misused for the prank.
By today, state police had gone so far as to confiscate typewriter ribbons from the offices of two delegates, Timothy Maloney and Gerard S. Devlin of Prince George's in their attempt to satisfy Ficker's request.
Finally, late in the day, Maloney released a letter he had sent Ficker in which he claimed full responsibility for the prank. "I know you won't want to waste any more valuable time trying to crack the Case of the Counterfeit Carnal Cookie Correspondence," Maloney's letter said.
"The cookie correspondence was cooked up in my kitchen. I accept all the consequences for its consumption -- even if you require me to travel to your district and pose publicity eating a piece of the pornographic pastry."
In addition to state police, lobbyists were roaming the State House halls with vigor today. The Associated Building Contractors, a nonunion builders' trade association, threw their traditional first day cocktail party, at which members sported red and white button proclaiming: "Get into politics or get out of business."
Another party given by several Annapolis area legislators may have produced the most fitting symbol for the opening day sobriety. Next to an elaborate spread of cold cuts, meatballs and sweets stood a silver punchbowl filled with a yellowish-orange foam that most party guests were avoiding.
It was supposed to be a whisky sour punch," said a chagrined secretary, when asked about the foam. "But nobody's going near it. I don't know what went wrong with it."