When the Maryland General Assembly convenes here Wednesday for its 202nd session, the usual opening pomp will be short.
Within hours of the lawmakers' arrival, consumer advocate Ralph Nader will address a State House rally of savings and loan depositors angry that their funds are frozen. The next day, the attorney appointed by the state to investigate the causes of the state savings and loan crisis will report on his findings.
On Friday, Gov. Harry Hughes is expected to announce a long-awaited plan to give relief to the troubled thrift customers.
As a result, the start of the 1986 session, taking place amid the turbulence of an election year for all state officials, will be dominated by a crisis whose solution has eluded and exhausted state leaders for months.
By its end, the session could crown the last four years as a tenure of achievement for the 188 lawmakers and for Gov. Harry Hughes, or it could consign those years to obscurity and a legacy of disappointment.
"It's going to be a difficult year," said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore). "We don't have an easy issue."
At some point in the three-month session, Hughes must present to the legislature his package of bills for toughening the state's regulation of the multibillion-dollar savings and loan industry.
Apart from savings and loans, lawmakers must deal with problems including skyrocketing rates in liability insurance for doctors and other professionals and the pleas by officials of some jurisdictions, especially Prince George's County, for more education funding. Hughes, according to one source, will include in his budget a significant boost in aid to elementary and secondary education -- the more expensive of two plans proposed two years ago by a gubernatorial task force headed by former U.S. attorney general Benjamin Civiletti.
In addition, the legislature will continue work begun in previous years, reviewing recommendations to restrict development around the Chesapeake Bay and to curtail health care costs. Some lawmakers will try to revive proposals that were rejected last year, including those that would mandate the wearing of seat belts and create a "crime victim's bill of rights" in state law.
Chiefly, however, the legislature's work centers on the governor's fiscal 1987 budget; lawmakers can cut it but cannot add to it. The budget, Hughes said last week, would give the state's 60,000 employes a pay raise and its 220,000 welfare recipients an increase in benefits. He plans a few "initiatives" in the areas of housing, teen-aged pregnancy, nutrition and juvenile services.
Hughes has said that an unexpectedly large surplus of $118 million will be enough to fund those programs as well as to offset any losses in the thrift relief plan and to maintain current programs. The surplus, about $70.8 million more than had been expected, results from lottery revenues that were higher than expected, real estate transfer money and construction activity, and an unobligated fund balance at the close of the last fiscal year on June 30.
Also, Hughes is likely to avoid an annual, bruising fight with the legislature over language regulating state funding for abortion.
Rather than focus their energies on the annual abortion dispute, leaders of the "prochoice" and antiabortion movements instead developed several joint proposals aimed at reducing the teen-age pregnancy rate while enhancing support for low-income mothers and pregnant women of any age. Hughes, who has supported fewer restrictions on state funding for abortion, said some of their suggestions are incorporated into his legislative package.
A major part of his package addresses the increasing scarcity and rising costs of commercial insurance. The problem, faced by state governments across the country, surfaced in Maryland last year as day care centers and nurse midwives learned that many of their policies were being abruptly canceled, a situation that would have forced many of them to shut their doors. The insurance commissioner barred the cancellations, but soon municipal officials, doctors and other professionals reported that their companies were refusing to renew policies or were offering to do so only with dramatic rate increases.
After appointing two task forces to study the problem, Hughes is expected to offer a package of recommendations that would give the insurance commissioner increased authority, protect municipalities from large damage awards and impose changes designed to cut the number and size of lawsuits. Hughes said he hoped that the bills will encourage companies to bring down their rates.
Apart from savings and loans, insurance is likely to be the most difficult issue of the session, said several lawmakers. "The reason I think it's the most difficult is that, even if we enact all the recommendations, I'm not sure we'll solve the problem," Cardin said.
The insurance issue involves three of the most experienced and best represented industry groups that appear before the General Assembly -- doctors, trial lawyers and insurance industry representatives.
"Doctors will be fighting with depositors over who's going to stand on the State House steps holding up signs," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's).
Other issues that occupy the legislature include:Education:
*With the loss of federal revenue sharing later this year, most of which is devoted to education, some local governments will be asking the state to make up the difference. Prince George's County officials, faced with a court order for further desegregation, have asked Hughes to give them an extra $12 million for a magnet school program. State House sources said that they believe that the county will likely get about half that.
*Chesapeake Bay: As a part of a bay cleanup program, a state panel proposed guidelines for development of land ringing the bay and its tributaries. The panel adopted strict standards to control growth in the "critical" 1,000-foot strip of shoreline, recommendations that have angered many Eastern Shore repesentatives as unduly burdensome to their areas. The recommendations must be adopted or rejected by the legislature. If adopted, they would take effect in June 1988.
*Housing: Among the proposals is a program to allow the state, for the first time, to subsidize rent costs for households with low incomes. Another would commit state funds for the construction of projects that reserve some units for low-income families. Yet another would give money to nonprofit groups to help them find housing for hard-to-place groups such as the mentally ill.
Touted by Hughes as equal to his Chesapeake Bay preservation and youth initiatives of previous years, the housing proposals are described by some legislators as too diffuse and will likely be too thinly funded to make a notable improvement in living conditions for the poor. Other lawmakers, particularly in Prince George's, say education is more important and should receive any available money that does not go to solving the savings and loan crisis.
*Capital projects: Among the probable points of contention are a request by Baltimore City for $10 million for improvements to the National Aquarium and one by black lawmakers for funds for the city's Provident Hospital, one of the nation's few hospitals owned by and primarily serving blacks.
*Sports authority: A gubernatorial commission has proposed creation of a sports authority with the power to select the site of a proposed Baltimore area stadium.
Overshadowing these issues, however, at least in the early days of the session, will be plans to allow about 100,000 savings and loan depositors access to funds that have been frozen for months, without severely depleting the state's resources. State leaders promised this access after a depositors' run in May on one thrift triggered withdrawals at other thrifts and, later, a state-imposed freeze on withdrawals.
Depositors whose money is frozen "think that money's sitting right there in the thrifts , and it isn't," said Sen. John Carroll Coolahan (D-Baltimore County). The assets of the savings and loans may be tied up in real estate or other investments that are not easily converted to cash without substantial losses, he noted, and the state may have to turn over some of its money to depositors.
The agencies that review Maryland's credit-worthiness want the state to set up a reserve fund to handle any losses resulting from a resolution of the savings and loan problem. Several lawmakers have said in recent weeks that this may consume up to $100 million, although not all may come from general funds.
Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) said that savings and loan issues are so important that he will take the unprecedented step of creating a standing committee solely to consider savings and loan bills.
Hughes has missed several self-imposed deadlines for revealing his plans for depositors. Although Hughes now says he will unveil the proposal Friday, his delays have caused frustration and anger among some lawmakers.
Coping with savings and loan problems, House speaker Cardin said, particularly during two special sessions held after the 1985 General Assembly ended in April, have left him and his colleagues drained. "We haven't thought the 1986 General Assembly out as well as we have in previous years," he said. "We're all tired, and we haven't had time to rest. To be frank, we're all tired of S&Ls, but we can't be because we still have work to do." Tomorrow: A preview of the Virginia legislature