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For upcoming General Assembly session, it’ll be far from business as usual

By the time Maryland legislators return to Annapolis in January, most of the nation likely will have returned to a comfortable routine. But for state lawmakers, the upcoming General Assembly session could prove far from standard.

Call it the year of the monkey wrench, a time when unforeseen circumstances and colliding political and economic realities add an element of the unpredictable to the state’s annual grapple over money, power and law.

First off, the next session unfolds during an election year — so politicking and grandstanding in Annapolis could be even more pronounced than usual.

Second, for the first time in a decade, redistricting will color the proceedings. As lawmakers meet this fall to hammer out legislative priorities, many are wondering how, or whether, their own districts will be redrawn — or even eliminated. Some observers say backdoor deal-making will be more intense as a result.

Add to this a dose of realpolitik: For the first time since 1994, a lame-duck governor will preside over the legislative session. But political insiders say it’s too soon to count Gov. Parris N. Glendening out, since he still wields considerable influence and holds the cards for reapportionment.

Then there’s the economy. Everyone knew it was slowing, but when the events of Sept. 11 slammed into the national psyche, state revenue and revenue projections cooled even more rapidly.

“All of it has a tremendous impact” on the General Assembly’s 2002 session, said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.Paying the piper

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to agree they’ll tread lightly, owing to the unusual mix of variables.

“We think that caution is important,” said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore City/Baltimore County, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Without doubt, money is a top-of-mind issue. General fund revenue for the current fiscal year, which ends next June 30, already has been revised downward by $40 million. And they’re likely to dip further, given that Medicare expenses are running higher than expected.

“Sales tax, I can tell you, is going to take a real drop in September” when numbers are finalized, said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

Not surprisingly, Republican lawmakers are quick to criticize the record-level spending that has characterized the last few sessions — and to note that it’s time to pay the piper.

“When I walked off the floor, I thought, ‘This is a hold your breath, cross your fingers type of budget year,’” said former Sen. Martin G. Madden, R-Howard/Prince George’s, who left the Senate earlier this year.

“We should have proceeded with caution last year,” Madden said.

“The governor spent everything in sight,” added Robert O.C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

But no amount of 20/20 hindsight — or finger-pointing — will alter upcoming fiscal realities.

“Things are shaking crazy right now,” said a policy insider in Annapolis, who declined to be identified. “There will be substantial short-term [economic] shocks. The fiscal 2003 budget is potentially problematic.”

For fiscal 2003 — the focus of the next General Assembly — revenue projections already have declined by $34 million since June. And things could get worse, analysts say, since current forecasts do not take into account the Sept. 11 events.

The upshot: Maryland already faces a significant budget deficit in 2003 — a state of affairs far different from the $153 million surplus generated in fiscal 2001.

“The outlook for a recurrence of rapid growth [from capital gains and related revenue] in the near term does not look good,” stated Warren G. Deschenaux, Maryland’s chief legislative policy analyst, in a recent report to lawmakers.

“The party’s over,” said the policy insider.Redistricting pressure

The state’s dwindling bankroll could make the already-contentious debate over redistricting even more so. According to new census data, Montgomery County stands to gain a new Senate seat and two new delegates, while Baltimore City is likely to lose two senators and six delegates. Other shifts also are expected.

The budget crunch means Glendening will not be in a position to shower lawmakers with funds for pet projects in their new or altered districts, so there’s little or no cushion to soften the political blow that apportionment changes may bring.

“The pressure is on right now” in the redistricting battle, said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. “Without any money, there isn’t the same kind of flexibility” on the governor’s part. “Had it been four years ago, I think you’d have seen a different kind of play.”

Hixson said she expects to see court challenges on redistricting, “no matter what comes out of the governor’s office.” She added: “You can sense some of the unrest.”

“Reapportionment has set a very divisive tone in Annapolis,” said Carolyn T. Burridge, a transportation industry lobbyist. “Bipartisanship is strong on Capitol Hill, but I think it’s out the door in Annapolis.”

“I never thought I might end my public service career through redistricting, but that might come about,” said Sen. George W. Della, D-Baltimore City/Baltimore County. “It is distracting, to say the least.”

Plain vanilla budget

Of course, political futures aren’t all that’s at stake next year. Any number of programs long favored by Glendening and the Democratic majority in Annapolis may be denied funds, including education.

“The legislators and the governor will not have money to spend, [and] they’re going to come very close to having to make some spending cuts,” said Kathleen T. Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

“You’re going to see a plain vanilla budget that deals with the essentials,” said Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. “There will not be, that I can see, any major increase in any funding programs.”

One of the toughest spending battles is likely to arise over the long-awaited Thornton Commission report — a sweeping review of state educational funding needs. Analysts say the report is likely to recommend $2 billion in additional spending on K-12 education.

Though education remains a top priority for many lawmakers — and a key plank during the upcoming election year — the chances for enacting any of the commission’s proposals look bleak.

“Unless we find outside funding, there’s no money for it,” said Hixson, a comm
ission member. She doubts there’s enough political will to raise the needed funds by issuing a one-cent sale tax increase or by closing other tax loopholes. “It’ll be a real hard sell during an election year.”

Cutbacks in school construction also are likely. Last August, Glendening boasted to county policymakers that during the course of his administration, the state was on track to “shatter” school construction spending goals, which already had reached $1.5 billion for public schools alone. That dream, if not itself shattered, certainly is tabled.

Funding higher education goals — long a Glendening priority — also will get tougher. The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus is likely to press for additional scholarship funds for African-American students who attend the state’s historically black colleges, such as Coppin State.

“Currently there’s not enough financial aid for them,” said Del. Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore City, the caucus chairman. “Hopefully we can budget it in, but as we know, times are going to get tight.”

And education is by no means the only potential victim of spending cuts.

Many jurisdictions also may be hard hit, including Baltimore City. Mayor Martin J. O’Malley is asking state lawmakers this year to provide $52.8 million for public safety, economic development and health-related initiatives.

“If you look at what the mayor has put together, he’s aggressive in what he’s attempting to get out of the state,” said Della. He said he “cheers the mayor on,” but he isn’t convinced that every wish will be granted. The appropriations committee will have to deal “in a realistic manner” with sickly revenue projections. Regardless of the crunch

Still, many political observers agree that no matter what shape the budget is in, Glendening will want to cap his legacy with hallmark legislation of some sort — as long as it doesn’t cost too much.

“It’s possible the governor will announce some expansion of the Smart Growth initiative, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that there’s a big-budget item,” said John W. Frece, communications director for the Office of Smart Growth.

“It’s Glendening’s last year; he’s done the major portion of his legacy,” said George Cormeny, senior vice president and legislative affairs director with Allfirst Bank in Baltimore. “But a full meal always likes dessert, [so] he’ll put a dessert budget out there.”

Dessert or no, an extra side dish — one that wasn’t on the menu until recently — is likely to be served as well. It will entail spending on emergency security and safety measures spurred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. No one knows how much will be spent, or precisely how, but lawmakers agree it’s coming — budget crunch or not.

“I fully expect that emergency preparedness and state police costs will have to be increased in the next year’s budget,” said Snyder. “It would be a logical response to constituent concerns about security.”

Hixson says she already has been approached about the possibility of speeding up elimination of Maryland’s death tax to help families affected by the Sept. 11 crisis. Also on the table: eliminating income taxes for military families while a crisis situation persists.

“Anything we can do to relieve some of the financial pressures upon the families and businesses affected by this devastating tragedy, we want to do,” said Branch.

For Cormeny, even if tragedy unites Maryland lawmakers on some level, a little petty partisan politicking should be embraced. “Right now our country has the terrorist flu,” he said. “We’re feeling kind of bad, and when we start to bicker again, it’s a sign that the fever is breaking.”