Miller predicts longer session

He notes budget shortfall, slots issue, new members

`Long, hot summer' lies ahead

Assembly has extended meeting once since 1916

January 12, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller predicted yesterday the General Assembly will need to go beyond its 90-day session to achieve a balanced budget and to resolve differences over legalizing slot machines and raising gasoline or other taxes.

If an extended session were to be needed, it would be only the second time in more than 80 years. The other occurred in 1992 during Maryland's last major budget crisis.

Miller's comments yesterday before the Maryland Association of Counties' annual winter conference in Annapolis highlight the task legislators and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. face this year.

"My prediction is we are not going to get through in April. We are going to try real hard, but it could be a long, hot summer in the state of Maryland," Miller told the conference.

In the next 85 days, legislators - one-third of whom are freshmen - must close a more than $500 million shortfall in this fiscal year's budget and work with Ehrlich to fix an estimated $1.2 billion gap in next year's budget.

The General Assembly must also tackle Ehrlich's proposal to allow slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

Miller first made his prediction of an extended session yesterday morning during a closed-door meeting with the association's executive board. Later, in response to a question, he made similar comments to the entire conference.

Miller said his prediction is based on the complexity of issues before the legislature and the number of new faces in Annapolis this year. There is also a new speaker of the House of Delegates, four new Senate committee chairmen and, after Wednesday, a new Republican administration.

"Because of a new governor, new General Assembly, new county commissioners, we are off to a very slow start," said Miller, who has been Senate president since 1987.

If the legislature fails to pass a budget by the end of its 90-day session, it is automatically forced into an extended session and is prohibited from acting on anything but the budget.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who also spoke at the conference, was more optimistic about the legislature's chances of finishing on time. But the speaker said there is a "higher probability this year than previous years" that an extended session will be needed.

"There is a lot on the table here," said Busch, who was sworn in as speaker Wednesday. "I am hopeful that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish in this 90-day session."

Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Perry Hall Republican and House minority leader, said it is "premature" to talk about an extended or special session.

"The last thing this state needs is a special session," Redmer said. "We need to get the hell out of town and then let Bob Ehrlich and his team review state government."

The last extended session occurred in 1992 after the General Assembly failed to reach an agreement on a balanced budget. The session, which lasted four days, was the first extended session since the process was set up in 1916.

During the early 1990s, the Assembly also was called back to Annapolis several times to meet in special session to deal with budget woes.

The difficult task facing the legislature was evident at yesterday's conference when Miller and Busch laid out starkly different views on allowing slots at racetracks.

Legislative leaders expect Ehrlich's budget plan, which the governor-elect will release Friday, to assume the state will receive $400 million in fiscal year 2004 from licensing fees on slot machines.

If the legislature rejects slots, it will have to come up with that $400 million by either cutting programs or increasing taxes. Ehrlich has ruled out boosting taxes.

"I've certainly been through a lot of legislative sessions, but this is truly a unique set of circumstances," said Kenneth H. Masters, a former Democratic delegate who is now Ehrlich's legislative director.

Miller, a supporter of slots, told the conference that the machines are one of the few realistic ways to balance the budget.

"How are we going to balance this budget? We don't know at this point," Miller said. "My guess is a combination of slots and tax increases."

But Busch - who also announced yesterday he supports an increase in the gas tax - told the group he thinks current proposals for thousands of slot machines at four racetracks are bad policy.

The uncertainty over the budget is worrying the leaders of local governments. Ehrlich has warned them to prepare for cuts to local aid if his slots proposal is not approved.

"We are very anxious," said Marilyn J. Praisner, a Montgomery County councilwoman and president of the association. "Especially since this is a period where more is not known. We don't have a budget, and we have a lot of new players."

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