NOW THE GREAT financial balancing acts begin in Annapolis and Richmond, for two quite distinct states in comparable fiscal pickles. It's opening day for the legislatures in both capitals, and the promise of the new year is not all that promising. Two governors with considerable constitutional powers but no partisan sway over their legislatures must work with new House speakers, veteran state Senate leaders and relatively young lawmakers to close gaps in their budgets with little to no prospect of tax boosts. In Maryland, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't take office until next Wednesday but will submit his budget proposals two days later to an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. In Virginia, Democrat Mark R. Warner resumes his budget cutting for a second year, hoping for sufficient cooperation from a Republican-controlled legislature in no mood to raise taxes in an election year.
The upheaval in Annapolis -- which last saw a Republican governor in 1968 -- will be especially fascinating. Mr. Ehrlich has yet to select most of his cabinet, but already Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is gearing up for possible confirmation battles to even any old scores that he can. When the name of Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a veteran lawmaker with transportation experience, came up as a candidate for secretary of transportation, Mr. Miller blasted him as "divisive, mean-spirited and also not qualified." Translation: Mr. Flanagan led the court undoing of a redistricting plan that had Miller fingerprints all over it. Will Mr. Miller jerk his Democratic troops into line to deny a post to a colleague?
One of the first orders of fiscal business will be to calculate the financial damage that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has done in his till-emptying finale. The new governor is looking to slot machines for salvation, and lobbyists for big out-of-state gambling interests have been camped in the legislative halls for weeks. Even if endorsed by the legislature, though, slot machines alone won't bridge the gap. A gas tax increase -- possible and long overdue -- could help a bit; so could a broadening of the sales tax base, but you are not hearing about it in the capital.
Both governors are looking for ways to streamline government; Mr. Warner has been paring down agencies for months. Nearly everyone in both capitals talks about tax restructuring, but nobody is delivering. Tax breaks for businesses and the wealthy persist and in Richmond may soon be worsened if Republican lawmakers repeal the estate tax.
This region's needs transcend state lines; with closer coordination by the increasingly powerful delegations from Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs, balanced growth and transportation improvements can and should be pressed. In reviewing what people expect from their state governments, budgets may be tight for now, but the thinking need not be small.