Maryland's General Assembly session begins today with Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposing an agenda short on new initiatives but potentially long on controversy.
The governor's wish list includes far-reaching gun control legislation that would require handguns eventually be sold with devices restricting their use. For the first time, he is proposing to provide state aid to private and parochial schools. He wants to require higher pay for workers on school construction projects. And, despite a record budget surplus, he has no plans for significant tax cuts other than elimination of the inheritance tax.
Each proposal is likely to provoke debate in a session that will be dominated by the clamor from local governments and others for a portion of the state's projected $925 million budget surplus, or its windfall from a $4.4 billion multi-year settlement with the tobacco industry.
Glendening (D) himself hopes to spend new money on a targeted set of programs that will burnish his liberal credentials as he settles into his final term. With speculation already swirling about his plans for when he leaves office, the governor has only this session and next year's to stake out his legacy--and raise his national profile for a possible Cabinet position in Washington. By 2002, his last session before stepping down, the focus will be on the political maneuverings of Glendening's would-be successors.
Glendening wants to boost spending on school construction and classroom renovation and steer record amounts toward new building on Maryland's college campuses. He also has called for sizable increases in spending for new transportation projects and health care coverage for the children of the working parents unable to afford insurance.
The proposal to eventually mandate safety devices on handguns is the product of a campaign promise he made during his reelection bid.
The governor likens the homicide rates in urban centers such as Baltimore, which had more than 300 homicides last year, to an epidemic, and he vowed, "We're going to use every resource of this office to get this bill through."
The main battleground will be the Senate, especially the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which includes some of the Assembly's most conservative lawmakers. A cross section of Republicans and Democrats on the committee are gun rights advocates.
Still, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), whose district includes the headquarters of Beretta USA, said he expected a scaled-down version of the proposal to pass. "There will be a lot of fine-tuning," he said yesterday. "Some kind of child-lock safety device from the manufacturer will be mandated."
Each year, Glendening picks and chooses where to expend his political capital. This year, he has taken on a new cause: For the first time, Glendening has signaled that he will include $6 million for aid to private and parochial schools for textbooks. His move already has mobilized opposition from the powerful Maryland State Teachers Association.
"To take any money away from any public schools, we'll have to look at very closely," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery).
Glendening also is proposing that union-scale prevailing wages be paid to construction workers building and renovating public school classrooms.
The move sets up a fight with the construction industry. State law already requires payment of prevailing wages for other public building projects, but the governor said a "quirk" in the law exempted schools and should be fixed.
Glendening has earmarked much of the budget surplus and tobacco windfall for his own priorities, but many of the 188 legislators returning to Annapolis today have their own ideas. Legislative leaders are pushing Glendening to sign on to accelerating the already-approved 10 percent income tax cut, which is scheduled to be fully phased in by 2002.
"The timing is right because we are so flush with surplus," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany).
Although many lawmakers predict that the most controversial issue of the session could be the governor's gun control proposals, the sharpest elbows and swiftest political kicks will be exchanged over how to spend all the money.
"I think the big fight is going to be over the tobacco money," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D), chairman of Prince George's County delegation in the House. "In general, people are going to want more" than whatever Glendening proposes.
Virtually every interest group in the state has a proposal for money. "The big temptation is, 'We've got a billion-dollar surplus, what can we do to help them?' " said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Charles), a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "We have to watch that we don't build in deficits."
Glendening has remained opposed to any further tax cuts, and in a meeting with reporters this week, he refused to commit to an acceleration of the income tax cut even if state revenue estimates in March show more money available.
Md. General Assembly Issues
A look at major issues that likely will dominate this upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly, which opens today:
What's at stake
Glendening will be pushing legislation to controlrequire that all handguns sold in Maryland beequipped with built-in, mechanical lock devices that allow only their users to fire them.
Lawmakers will scramble for a piece of the $925 million surplus that a booming economy has pumped into Maryland's treasury. Glendening wants to spend record sums on new roads and buildings for school systems and state colleges.
Charities and health advocates are reaching settlementfor a piece of the $55 million first installment of the national settlement with the big tobacco companies. Much of the money isearmarked for anti-cancer, anti-smoking programs.
Charges that Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore) conspired with top lobbyist Gerard E. Evans to defraud his clients will be explored. Legislative leaders are proposing a ban on business deals between lobbyist and lawmakers.
After a near miss in 1999, advocates for schoolscharter schools will be back this year with a better-organized push to pass a bill allowing the creation of small, taxpayer-funded academies.
Higher education funding
State colleges and universities -- especially the University of Maryland at College Park -- will push for significant increases in funding they say are necessary to join the ranks of top public institutions.
Proposals for major new education initiatives will compete for funding, including multimillion-dollar plans to provide mandatory tutoring for every struggling student, college scholarships for every "B" student, mentors for every new teacher and telephones for every classroom.
Abortion opponents, who won a key victory in the Senate last year, will be back with legislation to ban the procedure known as "partial birth" and may push to require parental consent for minors seeking abortions.
The state inheritance tax is almost certain to become history this year, with Glendening and key lawmakers agreeing to eliminate the tax, at a cost of $50 million a year in revenue. Legislative leaders also want to accelerate a previously approved cut in income taxes.
With Glendening's decision to abandon plans to build a new suburban highway between Interstates 270 and 95, proponents of the so-called intercounty connector will take their case to the legislature.