Tardy budget may force a longer session

March 31, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly missed its deadline to enact the state budget yesterday, raising the possibility that this year's 90-day legislative session will have to be extended if lawmakers can't reach a compromise.

The Maryland Constitution requires the governor to issue a proclamation extending the session if the budget is not enacted by midnight of the 83rd day, which was last night. During an extended session, the General Assembly is prohibited from considering anything but the budget.

That could mean legislative death for any budget-balancing tax bill, the capital construction budget or other legislation pending when the regular session ends.

More ominously, it could mean that some version of the governor's "doomsday budget" -- a list of spending cuts so deep that certain state agencies would be crippled -- might go into effect.

Aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer said last night that he would issue the proclamation today extending the session for an additional 10 days. He issued a similar proclamation two years ago, although lawmakers enacted the budget in time for normal adjournment and it ultimately wasn't needed.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, called the proclamation "merely a formality" and said Senate and House leaders hope they can reach compromises on budget and tax matters before the scheduled adjournment at midnight April 6.

Only if they fail to enact the budget by then would the extended session begin. Even if that seemed likely, lawmakers could vote to extend the session themselves, giving them another opportunity to enact taxes or any other matter still pending.

No legislative session has been extended because of failure to enact the state budget for at least 50 years and probably longer, according to legislative staff.

But the differences over the budget and more contentious tax issues make this session at least a candidate for breaking that record.

Conferees met for the third day yesterday, whittling down a list of some $70 million in differences between House and Senate versions of the budget. The agonizingly slow process involves the operating details of virtually every agency of government -- how much money is awarded in welfare benefits, how many prison inmates the state can expect next year, how much to cut spending on higher education without forcing tuitions sky high.

The marathon work sessions -- in a cramped conference room with four senators on one side of the table, five delegates on the other and staff in between acting as referees and accountants -- deal with a level of bureaucratese unknown to most of the working world.

It takes hours to plow through so many issues, but it would take even longer if the lawmakers didn't speak half the time in acronym-ese.

"DOT has to go and get approval from Wash COG under 'Iced Tea,' " Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, explained to his fellow conferees yesterday. Translated, he was saying that the state's transportation department was unhappy that some of its plans for traffic management had to first be approved by the Washington area Council of Governments under a new federal highway act known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 or, abbreviated, IS TEA.

The hottest issues, which usually involve the most money, almost always are saved for last. The conferees can quickly decide whether to spend $250,000 on a new computerized financial management system, but not on whether to cut millions of dollars from the University of Maryland, or from the Medicaid program, or from the prison system.

"U.I.A.," someone will say when they can't agree. It means Up In The Air, and they all flip the page to the next item.

The House this year cut more money from the budget than did the Senate, and is trying to keep the senators from restoring funds that would increase the necessity for taxes. Once the budget conferees finish their work, the legislature's most divisive problem -- what to do about taxes -- moves center stage.

A separate conference committee on a half-billion-dollar tax bill passed by the House will probably meet for the first time today. Its job is to find a compromise that at least 71 delegates and 24 senators -- majorities in the two houses -- can support.

Despite constitutional deadlines, the House conferees have seemed in no particular hurry. They're well aware that time works against the Senate, where a paralyzing filibuster is always a possibility. The closer to adjournment the session gets, the more effective -- and likely -- a filibuster becomes.

Senate leaders want to get a package to the floor as soon as possible to avoid a filibuster, which is harder to mount when there's more time left. House leaders think a little delay will make their Senate counterparts nervous about a filibuster more willing to compromise quickly.

Budget deadlines

Midnight 83rd day (yesterday): If budget isn't passed by this day, the governor is required to issue a proclamation to extend the 90-day session by 10 days.

Midnight 90th day (April 6):

Scheduled adjournment. If budget isn't passed by this day, the governor's proposed 10-day extended session begins and no other legislation may be considered but the budget.

Legislative options:

1. Enact the budget before midnight April 6, and no extended session is necessary.

2. Pass by a 60 percent vote of each house a resolution extending the legislative session. It would run concurrently with and continue past the governor's extended session. This could permit other legislation to be considered once the budget is enacted.

3. Enact the budget in an extended session and adjourn. Then reconvene in special session to consider tax, capital budget or other legislative matters that died when the regular session ended.

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