By Diana Mota Morgan and Krissah Williams
ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly opened as scheduled Wednesday, but the session had a morning-after feeling — more like Sept. 12 than Jan. 9.
Onlookers queued up for metal detectors. Lobbyists and other regulars sported newly issued ID badges, a Muslim imam delivered the House of Delegates’ opening prayer and the House and Senate passed a joint resolution expressing sympathy for victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mohamad Bashar Arafat, president of Islamic Affairs Council of Maryland, prayed before the House of Delegates in Arabic, and then in English.
“Help us view our diversity as a source of strength and richness so it will not lead to discrimination and hate,” Arafat told the lawmakers.
Arafat was chosen, Speaker of the House Casper R. Taylor Jr. said, to show Maryland’s continued commitment to religious tolerance.
“I thought it was important, especially at this time, to open this historic session with a prayer led by a man of God, a person of God, of the Islamic faith,” Taylor, D-Allegany, said.
America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrates, “how much we can accomplish when we are at a common purpose, and how much we can care for each other,” Taylor said.
The terrorist attacks and subsequent national economic recession will impact the Legislature’s priorities this session, senators and delegates said.
“It’s affected our budget and what resources we have available,” said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who was elected to his 16th consecutive term as Senate president. “It’s affected our daily lives because people who have visited us for years now” must be inspected by metal detectors.
Security guards and State Police monitored the entrances and halls of the State House. All regular visitors to the State House, including media, lobbyists and some family members were issued photo identification cards.
“Most of us remember wandering aimlessly through these halls. Because of Sept. 11, those days are over,” said Sen. Robert R. Neall, D-Anne Arundel.
From a security standpoint, opening day was a huge success, said Dave Humphrey, communications director for the Maryland Department of General Services. “There were no complaints. In fact, police officers received compliments on how quickly people were able to move through security.”
Although the mood in the State House was light, senators and delegates know they must deal with a session of “redistricting, re-election and recession” or the “three R’s” as Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, called them.
The state’s shrinking budget is its most pressing problem. The revenue decline could mean a budget shortfall of $1.7 billion by June 30, 2003, according to legislative budget analysts.
“It has made us focus more on our priorities,” said Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery. “I was here years ago when we had a recession. You don’t ask for things that would be nice but just aren’t necessary.”
Taylor agreed, saying, “We still face the dilemma of `two Marylands’ — the successful, prosperous Maryland that some of us enjoy, and the second Maryland, the one made up of the distressed counties that are still lagging behind their sister jurisdictions.”
Taylor did interject some levity as he introduced the new House members, telling them: “Welcome. From here on in it’s downhill.”
The mood was the same on the Senate side of the State House.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” Miller said. “We’ve had some times when there has been great abundance . . . and there are other times when the budget is going to be a little tight.”
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