In a region focused on Washington, the voter's attention seldom is diverted from national and international issues and personalities. When it is, the neighborhood-threatening controversies on display in Rockville, Upper Marlboro and the other county seats claim first priority; rarely does the citizen's gaze extend to Annapolis, the seat of state government and the increasingly busy home of the state legislature, the General Assembly of Maryland.
But don't be fooled by the lack of attention on the General Assembly. It is an important link -- becoming more significant all the time -- in our governmental structure, and vital issues are decided there that affect Maryland's citizens deeply and continuously. So it is that some of the least visible offices and candidates will present Maryland voters with some of their most important decisions in the Sept. 14 primary election.
The primary is the important first stage of Maryland's two-part quadrennial election process. At the second, the general election on Nov. 2, the voters will fill all of the Maryland's elective offices at the state and county levels. The September primary is the mechanism by which the voters will select the nominees to square off against each other in November.
Among the offices on the long September ballot will be those with high visibility at the top of the ticket -- governor, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, attorney general and comptroller -- accompanied by well-known and recognizable names and faces for each. Also before the voters will be the locally visible offices of the county governing body -- in Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the county executives and county councils; in Calvert, Charles, Frederick and St. Mary's, the county commissioners.
Although these more visible offices will attract the voters' attention, the state legislative contests are significant.
For the past 15 years, state legislatures throughout the country have been playing an ever more active role. Fueled by the energy of members first elected after reapportionment, and accelerated by the citizen activity of the late '60s and early '70s, many state legislatures have become stronger, more active and noticeably more independent of the executive branch than ever before, in some cases beginning for the first time truly to be the policy arm of state government that most state constitutions envision.
Now, with the advent (like it or not) of the "new federalism" and "Reaganomics," the responsibilities placed on state legislatures are expected to mushroom. Maryland is no exception. The impact of federal budget and tax actions on the Maryland citizen was expected to be the most important issue in the recently concluded 1982 session. Because of congressional delay, it was not. It will be in 1983.
Thus the legislature elected this November will have to determine Maryland's response to reduced federal funding and shifted responsibilities for programs for the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, students and the beneficiaries of a whole range of other social programs. Can these programs be allowed to wither, or die? If not, what Maryland resources will be used to finance them?
Long before the "new federalism," however, the Maryland General Assembly played a critical role in the day-to-day lives of Maryland citizens. It has had and will continue to have the sole or principal responsibility for:
* adopting a budget for the state;
* enacting tax policy;
* regulating utilities, banks, insurance companies, the real estate industry and businesses of all kinds;
* adopting a formula for the distribution of state funds for public education, an issue of critical importance in this area;
* establishing the level of state funding for Metro;
* deciding what state roads will be built and when;
* enacting criminal laws;
* adopting environmental policy;
* regulating motor vehicles and their drivers;
* providing or regulating the benefits provided to employees in the public and private sectors;
establishing the powers of local government; and
* ensuring the ethical and open operation of government at all levels.
These are not simple issues, and few have easy and simple answers. Simplistic answers are not adequate, and comprehensive solutions require an abundance of physical and human resources.
Maryland has been equipping itself to handle these issues. It retains the benefits of a "citizens legislature," but many legislators devote most of their time to legislative activity. Institutionally, the General Assembly is far more professional than only a decade ago.
The legislature meets annually for 90 days, and its committees meet year-round. Much of its work on major issues is accomplished between sessions, from April to January. Legislative facilities are among the best in the nation. Staff has been improved.
The state has provided the physical resources to do the job. It remains to the voters to provide the qualified and dedicated people to use those resources effectively and efficiently. Proper choices cannot be made unless a representative number of voters exercise their franchise for these offices. Wise choices cannot be made unless each voter takes the time and trouble in advance to inform himself about the candidates.
It will not be wasted time. State legislative elections are particularly important in Maryland, for it is almost unique among the states in electing all members of its legislature at the same time and in providing them--senators and delegates alike--with four-year terms. All 188 seats in the General Assembly will be filled at the November general election, and the races for most of these offices are contested and will be on the Septemberrprimary ballot.
Knowledgeable citizens recognize that the primary election often is all important. Not only does it afford the voters of each party the opportunity to select their best, but, in those areas with no effective general election opposition, the primary determines the ultimate outcome.
The ballot will be a long one--in some areas possibly even confusing. But voters would be well-advised to pay attention to the candidates for the General Assembly. Although few voters have recognized it, that is where much of the important action has been -- and, almost certainly, will continue to be.