ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer's strategy leading up to today's start of the 1991 General Assembly session was to appoint commissions, then let them make recommendations and defuse the opposition.

But things didn't work out as planned. The governor's special study panels on growth and transportation revenue threw the issues back into his lap, giving him options rather than recommendations. Another commission had a definite proposal -- $800 million in additional taxes -- that legislators quickly tried to label dead on arrival.

So as he begins his fifth legislative session, Schaefer is left having to carry the ball himself or watch it go nowhere.

"Governors are elected to lead," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "He'll have opportunities to state his goals."

Schaefer hasn't detailed his legislative program or presented his budget, but aides predict that the 90-day General Assembly session will be -- with good reason -- the most budget-driven in nearly a decade.

Nevertheless, the 188 legislators, who are starting four-year terms, must grapple with many other issues. An abortion-rights measure similar to one defeated last year is to be introduced, along with proposals to ban the sale of assault rifles, further restrict automobile emissions, preserve forests, clamp down on campaign spending and revamp automobile insurance coverage.

Foremost in lawmakers' minds is the sour economy that has sent tax collections plummeting. The governor has ordered $423 million in spending cuts and revenue transfers to keep the current budget balanced. Schaefer is expected to trim 3,100 vacant jobs and to deny state workers raises next year.

"There will be no tax increase in order to solve the present crisis," he told reporters recently.

Yet aides said Schaefer expects his tight state budget to build pressure for some tax increases among lawmakers, many of whom were elected on fiscally conservative platforms. Without a gasoline tax increase, road construction will be halted for 18 months, they warn.

"Governor Schaefer could tread water and get by for four years and he's off the hook," said Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who acts as Schaefer's liaison with the legislature. "But the problems would be worse in the next decade."

For the time being, however, the legislature is looking for any way to avoid tax increases.

"I think there's little chance for a tax increase, although the pressure and the discussion will increase all during the session," said Del. Charles J. Ryan (D-Prince George's), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "We're looking at ways to pull in our elbows, to do the things we have to do and try to squeeze down the size of state government."

Added Del. Ellen Sauerbrey (R-Baltimore County), leader of the House's expanded GOP contingent: "The session is going to be so colored by the issues of taxes and spending that it's hard to see a focus on anything else. But nobody has an appetite for tax increases because the {1990} election is still too close."

Lawmakers say they want Schaefer to be the first to mention the "T" word. First, Schaefer will have to decide whether to follow a Department of Transportation recommendation for a 5 percent sales tax on gasoline and raise motor vehicle fees to finance a $1.5 billion, five-year bridge and road program.

Although Senate leaders agree generally with the need to increase transportation funds, their House counterparts most assuredly do not.

"I just don't think there's many people willing to buy off on an additional tax," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent).

The governor's plans are unclear on the recommendation of a tax commission leaded by lawyer R. Robert Linowes. That panel suggested $800 million in higher sales, income and personal property taxes, much of it coming from wealthier jurisdictions such as Montgomery County and funneled to poorer areas.

Most legislative leaders were skeptical of the tax increases and the redistribution elements, saying that the results of Linowes's three-year study should be reviewed next summer for consideration a year from now.

Meanwhile, Schaefer is expected to introduce a plan to control growth in the Chesapeake Bay region. The measure would seek to concentrate growth in urban areas and limit it elsewhere. But the plan would face staunch opposition from many county government leaders, who see it as a step toward state control of land-use decisions.

A bill designed to assure Maryland women continued access to abortion is likely to be the first major issue to reach the legislative floor this year. Last year's election results and Schaefer's support for the bill are expected to improve its chances, and supporters say a Senate vote could come this month.

"I'm going to win this time," said Miller, who last year converted to the abortion-rights camp but watched the Senate strangled by an eight-day abortion filibuster.

But the bill, which would have few restrictions on abortion up to the time the fetus can survive outside the womb, still is expected to be contentious. Miller and others are pushing to require that parents be notified before minors get a legal abortion. Many abortion-rights advocates say some teenagers would be frightened into endangering their lives.

Miller and Mitchell said they plan to support campaign-spending changes, an effort that has foundered in the House during recent sessions. The bill is expected to target political action committee contributions and to limit the freedom politicians now enjoy to transfer campaign funds to other candidates.

Environmentalists are expected to rally behind Schaefer's plan to impose stricter automobile emission standards and his proposal to save Maryland forests threatened by rapid development.

The governor also plans to push to restrict ownership of military-style assault weapons and hold gun owners legally responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of children.

Underlying much of the session will be behind-the-scenes discussions about redrawing congressional and legislative district lines as a result of the 1990 census. The reapportionment process is to be completed in a fall special session and next year's regular session.

"Reapportionment will help explain many things this session that otherwise would seem unexplainable," one House leader said.

Major issues before the legislature include:

ABORTION -- After a long filibuster last year, abortion will be back as one of the first orders of business. A bill with few restrictions on access to abortion is expected to be voted on by the Senate this month. Supporters say the bill has majority backing in both chambers. However, a point of contention will be whether to require notification of the parents of minors seeking abortions.

TAXES -- Despite tough economic times and looming budget deficits, lawmakers appear reluctant to consider tax increases. But severe spending cuts could build pressure for implementing a commission's plan for higher taxes on income, sales and personal property. A vote is likely on raising the gasoline tax to support transportation programs.

GROWTH -- A commission appointed by the governor recommends that the state take a stronger role in land-use decisions to help protect the Chesapeake Bay. The thrust of the plan is to concentrate growth. The governor is expected to seek about $4 million to begin planning for new rules.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE -- The 1990 elections have given new momentum to proposals to limit the size of campaign contributions that state candidates may accept from political action committees. Legislative leaders also say they may seek to limit lobbyist involvement in political fund-raising.

OPEN MEETINGS -- A special committee has recommended that more meetings of governing bodies, including county councils and school boards, be open. A bill opposed by many local officials would set up a panel to rule informally on which meetings must be open to the public.

ENVIRONMENT -- The Schaefer administration is expected to propose requiring developers to leave trees in place or to replace them. The new federal Clean Air Act also will force the state to consider stricter automobile emission control measures.

INSURANCE -- A coalition supported strongly by the insurance industry is expected to push again for no-fault automobile insurance. Under the concept, a driver's insurance company pays for injuries or damages regardless of who caused an accident.

REAPPORTIONMENT -- The session will see the beginnings of debate over reapportionment of congressional and legislative districts to comply with the 1990 census. A special session will be held this fall to redraw boundaries of Maryland's eight congressional districts. New lines for the 47 legislative districts will be set next year.

EDUCATION -- The state's budget crisis has dampened enthusiasm for lengthening the school year and establishing mandatory programs for young children. However, lawmakers say they will be looking for ways to channel more money to the poorest school districts to reduce funding disparities.

GUNS -- Schaefer said he likely will support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and is considering new regulations on the sale of semi-automatic handguns.