The 1985 session of the Maryland General Assembly got under way here today with most legislators concentrating on the annual rites of ceremony and fraternity, while several key members of the House were meeting with Gov. Harry Hughes to begin working out their differences on prison policy.
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and two members of his leadership met with Hughes in the governor's office to defuse what had been a brewing confrontation over the administration's management of the troubled corrections system.
Cardin said he was "encouraged" by the tone of the session with Hughes, which he called the first step in "getting the House, the Senate and the governor on the same wave length" on prison issues.
The conciliatory nature of the meeting was in contrast to recent statements by Cardin in which he served notice on the administration that the House would embargo prison funds unless the legislature was provided with a believable long-range plan to improve facilities and programs for Maryland's 13,000 prison inmates.
Cardin has been unusually critical of the state prison system since the October slaying of a Maryland Penitentiary guard and the subsequent revelation that more than $1 million appropriated for improvements there had gone unspent. Cardin has also disagreed with the governor's position that the penitentiary, a facility constructed in the 19th century, can be renovated rather than torn down and rebuilt.
The speaker said he told Hughes today that the legislature's concerns go beyond the immediate issue of whether to renovate or rebuild the penitentiary, to broader questions about the overall management of the prison system.
The meeting was one sign that Hughes, who has at times had painful disagreements with the legislature -- the Assembly summarily rejected his proposed income tax increase last year, for instance -- went to some lengths today to reestablish a cordial relationship.
The governor sent imposing flower arrangements -- sprays of spider mums, magnolia leaves and baby's breath left over from his daughter's wedding -- to each chamber today. And Hughes made a rare appearance on the Senate podium as President Melvin A. Steinberg delivered his opening day speech.
Commenting on the session ahead, Steinberg said it "would not be as intense, but it will be more intellectually difficult and certainly as challenging" as the 1984 session, which was wracked by discord from start to finish.
On the other side of the State House, Cardin greeted his 140 House colleagues by promising a "productive" session that would "hopefully be a little bit quieter than last year."
Others said the prevailing predictions of a calm session could be misplaced. "It's not going to be all peaches and cream," said Del. Wendell H. Phillips, chairman of the Baltimore House delegation. Phillips said that the prison issue and attempts to tighten regulation of Maryland's health care industry would be "very difficult."
Most legislators were thinking today less of future disputes than they were of getting through the ritual elections of Cardin and Steinberg and the pro forma votes upholding last year's gubernatorial vetoes so they could concentrate on the inevitable round of receptions.
Action on the one controversial veto, of legislation to give the assembly veto power over regulations adopted by state agencies, was postponed for three weeks while the legislature and Hughes negotiate a compromise.
For some legislators, it was a time to catch up with former colleagues, who are drawn to their old haunts on opening day. Former Montgomery County senator Victor Crawford, for instance, was making the rounds telling everyone that he might return as the lobbyist for the Montgomery County Council.
And Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, was showing off his latest toy, a two-foot high programmable robot named Radar that he said could be taught to greet each committee member. Levitan, who often has had difficulty controlling the more rambunctious members of his unruly committee, indicated he would have no such trouble with Radar, which can be programmed to roll out and address each member with "Good morning, senator."
As they are expected to do throughout the session, the elections of 1986 hovered over today's proceedings. When Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery) walked onto the Senate floor, he was greeted by a colleague as "Mr. County Executive," a reference to his 1986 ambitions.