By Jonathan Crawford and Liz Farmer, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Maryland's General Assembly opened its annual 90-day session Wednesday with optimism that an end to divided government will help move the Democratic agenda forward. But the optimism was tempered by the prospect of a looming budget deficit and some potentially difficult legislative battles.
"I wouldn't say it's euphoria, but it's a feeling of happiness," Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, told reporters just before the opening. "The tension is gone . . . There's a feeling that people will work together."
Such a mood of cooperation, if indeed it materializes, would be a sharp departure from the last four years of bitter partisan battles between the Democrat-controlled legislature and the out-going Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich.
Indeed, barely after the opening gavels came down, and the two houses finished swearing in members and completing procedural matters, the new incoming Democratic governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, drew warm applause and cheers when he was introduced to each house.
"Progress is bipartisan and I'm looking forward to working with all of you," he told the Senate.
Of the 188 state legislators, 137 are Democrats. The party gained five seats in the House to out-number Republicans by 2-1, and Democrats make up a three-quarters majority in the Senate.
Still, the coming session will not be without controversy, whether within the Democratic Party or between the two parties.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Miller threw cold water on the idea that revenue-raising measures would lead to expanded government programs.
"I don't like the idea of tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend," he said.
On the other hand, Miller spoke approvingly of slot machine legislation, which he has supported for the last four years. This year, he said, may be the session to finally get it passed.
"I'd like to do it right now, sooner rather than later. You kill the snake while you got the hoe in the hand," he said.
However, his counterpart in the House of Delegates, Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he saw no need to take up the issue this year, according to the Associated Press.
And though O'Malley has said he favors slots, he told reporters Wednesday he didn't see a consensus for it this year.
"I don't think I'll be able to pull people together around that thorny problem until after the legislative session," he said.
Among the other issues expected to come before the legislators this session are a return of the early voting bill; an effort to get a so-called "paper trail" from electronic voting machines; efforts to fund education, new environmental standards for autos and a proposed cigarette tax increase.
Despite their shrunken numbers, Republicans vowed to make their presence felt.
"We'll have to see if they consider the results of the election a mandate and decide to set the state further, much further, to the left," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick, the new Senate minority leader.
The 423rd legislative session opened in the typical celebratory fashion, with handshakes and congratulations for the newly-elected members and friendly welcomes for the returning members. The State House swarmed with spectators as legislators and their families lined up to be photographed with Busch. Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George's, posed with her husband and three children.
"I'm looking forward to getting to know my colleagues," said the newly elected delegate, who listed health and education among her top priorities.
For many, it was a family affair. In the House lounge, Delegate S. Saqib Ali, D-Montgomery, sat in a couch holding sleeping infant daughter Sofia.
Over at the computers, Christian Anderson, 17, son of Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore, played a game with friends Cathy and Joseph LoGrande. Other families toured the State House and met Max, the bomb-sniffing dog. During both the house and senate sessions, many members simply sat with their children on their laps.
Notably missing from the hubbub was Ehrlich, who according to aides, was in meetings all day.
As legislators made their way to the State House through near-freezing temperatures, they were greeted by anti-abortion messages from about a dozen Defend for Life protesters on Lawyer's Mall.
"When they vote for abortion, they vote for the destruction of life," said Vincent Perticone, a 66-year-old Taneytown resident. Kevin Davis, a protester from Towson, said he wanted legislators to end abortion and what he called "the baby holocaust."