Maryland's legislative leaders opened the 414th session of the General Assembly yesterday with lofty speeches about steering the state through a new century, admonishing each other not to squander the state's historic $925 million surplus.
Speaker of the House Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), who outlined his plans to expand health care and improve mass transit, urged lawmakers to make wise use of the "vast resources at our disposal."
But he warned, "It is the people's money, not our money, and we must keep that in the front of our thoughts."
His counterpart in the other chamber, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), refrained from outlining specific goals for the upcoming session, instead reflecting on how future generations will judge the laws they pass in the next 90 days.
"When the people of the 22nd century look back on our achievements, will they stand the test of time?" he asked.
For all the talk of a new day in Maryland, the State House was haunted by echoes of its ethically challenged past. A top lobbyist and a state delegate from Baltimore both tried going about their business yesterday while they are under indictment, accused of conspiring to defraud the lobbyist's clients. Meanwhile, former state senator Larry Young, who was expelled from the legislature two years ago in an ethics controversy, led a rally outside the State House to protest police brutality.
Still, the opening session was permeated by the backslapping, air-kissing giddiness of past years. Legislative leaders used the day to tout their agendas for 2000.
Taylor called for an expansion of health insurance to poor children and working adults, incentives to help recruit and retain "qualified" teachers, and a stop-gap infusion of extra money for public schools while officials redraw state aid formulas over the year.
He also reiterated his interest in directing 1 cent of the state's 5-cent sales tax to roads and mass transit--to refresh the dwindling gasoline tax fund. "We simply will not have enough money in the transportation tax fund," he warned.
The speeches reflected the mixture of excitement and unease over the unexpected $925 million pumped into state coffers by a booming economy. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has earmarked much of the money to increase spending on road, school and college campus construction. Yesterday, he proposed spending $3 million over three years on research into new safety devices he wants to mandate for guns. But legislators likely will spend much of the next three months sparring over their own priorities.
Another initiative by Taylor and Miller went unmentioned today: Both have tentatively suggested a ban on business relationships between legislators and lobbyists, in response to the allegations that have embroiled Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore) and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, who were linked first by a questionable real estate deal. Last month, a federal grand jury in Baltimore indicted the men on charges of scheming to defraud paint companies out of more than $400,000 in fees. Both have denied the charges and pledged to continue working in Annapolis.
Fulton took his usual seat in the Baltimore delegation yesterday, drawing a smattering of encouragement from colleagues.
"Generally, people down here have been supportive of me," Fulton said, as Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's) came up to him, slapped him on the back, and told him to "hang in there."
Former senator Young, now a radio-show host in Baltimore, led a rally of about 70 people outside the State House protesting the deaths of several people in cases of alleged police brutality.
He said protest organizers want to see a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the brutality cases, which he said have not been properly investigated by local officials. He also took a moment to reflect on the Fulton controversy. "Having gone through what I did for those 18 months, I would not wish this on my worst enemy."
There was a more exultant mood elsewhere. Del. Dana Lee Dembrow (D-Montgomery) showed off his 7-month-old daughter, Danielle Diane Dembrow. Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), wearing a large floral corsage, was sworn in as Senate president pro tem on her 26th opening day as a legislator.
"This is history," she said. "I'm the first person in a new century, and the second person from Montgomery County, and the first woman in a generation" to hold the largely ceremonial post.
The teeming halls filled with local and national politicians making rare State House cameos--Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) holding forth about the need to encourage Marylanders to participate in this year's census; Baltimore's new mayor, Martin O'Malley (D), being greeted like a rock star by throngs of admirers; lesser-knowns, from the commissioners of Allegany County to the mayor of Ocean City, chalking up some high-quality schmoozing.
"It feels like a college reunion," said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D).
State archivist Edward C. Papenfuse was called upon to tell legislators what their predecessors at the turning points of past centuries faced. A lot, it turns out: The session of 1800 established voting rights for all (white, male) citizens, not just property owners; and in 1900, legislators spurred changes in schools and the workplace and established some of the first major environmental protections.
In comparison, this year's agenda may seem lightweight. But Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel) took a longer view. "You can't tell standing in the middle" of an era, he said. "I don't think the people in 1700, 1800, 1900 had any idea as they sat down" what their lasting legacies would prove to be.
CAPTION: State Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) waves to the gallery at the State House after her election as president pro tem on opening day of the state legislative session.
CAPTION: State Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-Baltimore) speaks to State House protesters during a rally against police brutality led by ex-senator Larry Young.
CAPTION: Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) talks with the media at the State House in Annapolis during opening day of this year's Maryland legislative session.