The opening session of the Maryland General Assembly began auspiciously today for Gov. Harry Hughes, as his new redistricting plan won the wide support of every major delegation, leaving only isolated pockets of opposition.
The session, as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin told his colleagues in an opening speech, would be dominated by the Reagan budget cuts, a transportation funding crisis and Maryland's galloping crime rate.
But even as Cardin spoke, the redistricting plan was the main question worrying the delegates in his audience. It was to have been introduced at noon, but copies were held up by a snowstorm as police carried them from printing offices in Baltimore.
Word of most of the changes already had leaked, and when the long-awaited plan was delivered to legislators at about 2 p.m. -- complete with maps -- most of the rumor and conjecture was confirmed. Hughes indeed had decided to help Prince George's County retain some of its legislative clout. He indeed had split the community of Columbia between two districts. And Hughes had proposed shifting the boundaries of two districts in Harford County, all against the recommendation of his own advisory commission.
After the shock waves settled, Hughes emerged a winner. The governor's plan pleased all the major delegations, particularly Prince George's. But it upset several legislators and some key leaders, including Cardin and Sen. President James Clark Jr., who both were commission members. Clark's district was redrawn dramatically in the Hughes proposal from what the commission orginally recommended, weakening the clout of Clark's home county, Howard.
"My district looks like a dog," Clark said as sympathetic senators gathered around him before the session convened. "See the head. See the nose. See the ears. I've got a doggie district," he said, staring somberly at his newly drawn district.
"Oh, it does look like a dog. Isn't that cute?" replied Sen. Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams of Baltimore.
"I thought the commission plan would hold up, I really did," Cardin said. "I don't understand his changes. He divided Columbia to give Prince George's 4,000 more people. I think the governor made a mistake."
There were ritualistic predictions and threats of lawsuits over the redistricting plan if, as expected, it is approved by the legislature within 45 days.
"We think we have a legal basis to challenge it," said Del. John W. Douglass (D-Baltimore City), chairman of the black caucus' redistricting commission. Douglass was concerned that Baltimore, which is 55 percent black, will have only four out of nine districts with majority black populations. "I am not satisfied."
But the redistricting storm was expected to blow over, leaving the legislators with issues such as a gasoline tax, raising the drinking age and lifting the ceiling on interest rates -- not the kind of issues politicians want to decide in election years.
But many legislators predicted that redistricting, for all the initial fury, could leave Hughes in better shape with a General Assembly where he now has a few political IOUs.
"It was a wise political decision," said Sen. Harry McGuirk (D-Baltimore).
Sen. Thomas V. Miller, chairman of the Prince George's delegation, was asked how the county's senators would vote on Hughes' proposed 4 percent tax on gasoline. "It's looking better and better," he said, smiling.
Aside from redistricting, the opening of the session was, in the opinion of many legislators, "less exciting" and more subdued than in the past. Some attributed the mood to election-year jitters, while others thought legislators were low-keyed this year because of the large number of politically tough choices facing legislators.
"Last summer's budgetary action by the president and Congress will present an important challenge to the Maryland legislature," Cardin said, outlining one of the toughest problems the legislature will face. "It will be important for us to sort out our state priorities."
But one legislator had a simpler explanation for the more somber tone this year: "It's snowing," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's). The snow eventually forced state office buildings to close at 2:30 p.m..
The legislators' only official action was to reelect the House and Senate leaders, and sustain all of the governor's vetoes without debate.
Then legislators adjourned for the day to the office buildings next door -- to take part in the opening-day smorgasbord.
The Anne Arundel County delegation, hosting the session in its home town, traditionally puts on the biggest affair, and this year was no exception. Senators and delegates collected platefuls of Maryland crab-cakes and sausages. Hanging on the wall behind a sumptuous spread of meats and cheeses, was a sign that read: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session."