THERE IS little joy in the state capitals anywhere in America this new year as governors and legislators struggle to stay ahead of the red-ink tide of a recession. And unaccustomed as Annapolis and Gov. William Donald Schaefer are to serious, bone-deep budget cutting -- "shortfalls" that are turning into longfalls -- the General Assembly session that opens today will have to get surgical with a vengeance. Already, the governor who loves to spend for popular, progressive programs has had to do just the opposite; he has ordered a hiring freeze, cut spending to save about $180 million, found more bad fiscal news in the books, ordered another cut -- of $243 million -- and will be looking along with the lawmakers this time for yet another $200 million to remove or try to offset with additional taxing.
Taxing? Forget it, says almost every legislator who believes in reelection. An increase in the gasoline tax, maybe -- but nothing else until there's enough additional bad news to force it. Besides, the governor still hasn't said how much of the Linowes Commission's tax study findings he might serve up for what at best would be a lukewarm reception in the legislature. Maryland's income tax structure should be fairer, and responsible members of the house and senate should not continue this inequity for yet another decade. But no one is counting on additional revenue from anything like this to help keep afloat this year.
While the financial squeeze will dominate legislative business in this session, there are other matters that the members should turn to and resolve while they're gathered. Gov. Schaefer intends to press for measures that would give the state more control over development decisions -- as a key to protection of the Chesapeake Bay. The commission that has developed proposals to protect the bay has compiled an innovative but tough set of proposals to prevent some devastating effects of growth. Lawmakers who are serious about preserving and reviving the bay know that it will take more than appeals to the public for donations or "Save the Bay" bumper stickers.
One topic that threatened to stop last year's session in its tracks -- abortion -- is expected to be dealt with early on, with the governor and legislative leaders intent on enacting an abortion rights bill that will satisfy most supporters. Measures to stop the flow of certain assault-style weapons are overdue for enactment, and law enforcement officials throughout Maryland will make sure the lawmakers know this.
The rest of this menu may be added Jan. 18, when Gov. Schaefer delivers his State of the State address. But what he would most like to add, he cannot: more money -- and that is the heart of the unpleasant mission ahead for the legislators.