This month, the Maryland General Assembly began its 417th session. Of the 188 senators and delegates sworn in, 51 are serving their first terms. Tim Maloney, a lawyer, was a Democratic member of the legislature for 16 years. He offers some advice to the new members:

Dear Freshmen:

Congratulations! You signed the oath book. This puts you in the history books. It also puts you on the payroll.

Now comes the hard part: Your first job will be to balance the budget, as required by the Maryland Constitution. Next year's deficit is $1.2 billion.

Take heart. Maryland has survived worse: a Civil War, two savings-and-loan crises, the budget collapse of 1916 and the great fire of 1904. Every state is wrestling with budget problems. Just be thankful you weren't elected to the Virginia legislature.

You will face tough decisions. The budget doesn't have much fat, and nearly every program has some merit -- as well as a vocal constituency. That's why it was funded in the first place. You will have to set priorities, make painful cuts and anger some powerful groups.

Don't rush to raise taxes, but don't be afraid of new taxes to protect what is really important. You must weigh the cost of increasing taxes against the cost of not increasing them. That's the best and worst part of this job: You get to make value judgments.

Case in point: I voted to raise the gas tax four times in 10 years, most recently in 1992. Without these taxes, $5.5 billion in transportation improvements would never have been made, and Metro would not have been completed. If today's tax phobia had prevailed then, our transportation problems would be unthinkably worse.

By the way, those tax votes never hurt politically. Few votes do. Almost no one loses an election because of votes he or she cast in Annapolis. People lose elections because of how they handle themselves in office.

My father used to say, "Do the right thing. The politics will always take care of itself." That simple rule makes all the difference, especially on moral issues such as the death penalty and abortion. Decide what you think is right. Then vote that way. Most voters will respect a principled stand, even if they disagree. What they don't respect is flip-flopping and double talk.

Of course, not every issue is a moral one. The legislature considered 2,365 bills last year. You'll vote on everything from black bears in Garrett County to beach erosion in Ocean City. Be flexible enough to help colleagues from other parts of the state. Someday your district will need their help.

The Maryland legislature, like the state, is a great melting pot. To borrow a famous phrase from the recent gubernatorial debate, get out of your comfort zone. Local delegations and caucuses are important, but get to know colleagues from other areas who have different backgrounds and different philosophies than your own.

Become a specialist in something. Legislative bodies run on shared expertise. Rely on the judgment of colleagues who have mastered a subject area. In time, they will reciprocate.

Some rules may seem counterintuitive:

Share the credit. The less you seek the limelight, the more your accomplishments will be recognized. Don't become known for wanting to be known. Everyone can spot a press hound, especially the press.

More counterintuition:

Most legislators want to become legislative leaders. Resist naked ambition. Don't aspire to be something. Aspire to do something. If you "do," the "be" will take care of itself. Don't just be in the legislature. Become of the legislature.

View issues from a state perspective. If you can see beyond the narrow confines of your district -- and your ambitions -- there is no limit to what you can get done.

Don't forget to have fun. Partisanship and the press have sucked some of the joy out of public life. The legislature faces serious issues, but that doesn't mean you have to be serious all the time.

Keep family and friends first. You will have lots of new "friends" in Annapolis. Learn the difference between friendliness and real friendship. If you're lucky, you will leave office with the friends you had before you were elected and maybe a few more.

Which brings up the final rule: Know when it's time to leave.

Your experience in public office will be more rewarding if you retire on your own timetable, not on someone else's.