ne morning late last week the leaders of the Maryland legislature assembled in a formal dining room of the governor's mansion for an eggs-and-bacon breakfast put on by Gov. Harry Hughes.
It was the first time the governor had called together this 20-member group since the legislature began meeting in January for its annual three-month session. As waiters served platters, the talked turned serious. The subject: the fate of the governor's proposals in this kick-off year of his second term.
The legislators listened politely as Hughes spoke of the need to pass his proposed labor department and his bills on drunken driving, child safety seats, banking deregulation and labor wages.
But later, the assessment of the prospects for the governor's modest legislative package was the same as before the leaders had been treated to eggs a la Hughes: The governor's proposals are in trouble.
In fact, the murmurs under the State House's white dome are that this could be Hughes' worst session since he became governor in 1979. The problem, in large part, is that the newly reelected governor has appeared almost uninterested in the progress of the legislature and the fate of his legislative package.
* The proposal that Hughes calls his centerpiece--the Department of Labor, Employment and Training--has drawn at best a lukewarm response from legislative leaders and has a good chance of being killed or, if passed, substantially altered. Rumblings against the new department have been heard for several weeks. Hughes finally began putting pressure on legislative leaders about a week ago.
* The budget he submitted to the legislature last month, and the "sin tax" increases he said were necessary to balance it, are being sliced by delegates and senators infected with budget-cutting fever. Hughes, who in the past has called the budget his most important job as governor, is now looking at a document that is likely to be altered in major ways, with tax proposals stripped away, when the House adopts it this week.
* Legislation that would force subcontractors on state jobs to pay workers a prevailing--and usually higher--wage is headed for overwhelming defeat by a conservative Senate Budget and Tax Committee.
* Hughes' package of drunken-driving legislation has already run into trouble in the Senate Judicial Procedures Committee, where one of the bills has been killed and another is scheduled to be soon. There is general consensus among the legislative leadership that, at most, half of his package will be approved by the General Assembly.
* Almost as an afterthought, the governor submitted banking legislation to allow credit card fees and variable rates on consumer loans for the first time and to loosen requirements for financial institutions that issue balloon mortgages. The Hughes proposal was offered weeks after the banking industry got several prominent legislators to submit much more far-reaching legislation. The industry has used the extra time to lobby quite effectively.
Although the banks are never popular here, Hughes' last-minute entry on the banking front irritated some senators who had been working with the industry. There are some concerns that the governor's proposal, while more acceptable to many legislators, may simply get amended into the banker's bill, a direct slap at Hughes.
* Even Hughes' efforts to extend the 911 emergency telephone program, which on the surface appears noncontroversial, may run into trouble. "911?" said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin. "That's a controversial bill." It would allow a higher tax on telephone bills to raise money to extend the 911 program.
The measures that appear headed for legislative approval are the governor's proposal to require that children under 3 years old be carried in safety seats when driven in automobiles, which was passed by the Senate last week, and his proposals to increase unemployment benefits slightly and to alter the unemployment taxes on businesses.
"He's in trouble," said one senator who attended the breakfast at the governor's mansion. "The labor department is shot to hell, the sin taxes are down the tube, his budget is being cut and half his drunk driving bills are dead."
But, others point out, Hughes is governor, with the powers and patronage that go with the post. Legislators, particularly the 50 new ones who have just begun four-year terms, are likely to remember that. The question is whether Hughes will choose to forcefully remind them.
Last year, when the governor was up for reelection and concerned about a lingering image that he was indecisive and did not exert enough leadership, Hughes and his staff began working early to make sure the governor's proposals passed--including controversial measures to raise the drinking age, redistrict the legislature and raise interest rates.
This year, with reelection out of the way, Hughes and his top staff people have been less visible as his legislative package trickled out of the governor's second-floor office. Now, with many of these proposals facing difficulties, Hughes and his staff say they will take a higher profile. This was apparent with last week's breakfast and the first appearance at a tough hearing on the labor department by Chief of Staff Ejner J. Johnson.
For his part, Hughes says that foreboding messages from the first floor of the State House, where the two houses convene each day, and from Hughes' staffers on the second floor, are entirely overrated.
"I'm not concerned," the governor said at his weekly press conference a few hours after the leadership breakfast. "When it's over, I think you're going to find it's a pretty good session for us."