Assembly may be in for long haul

THE POLITICAL GAME

Session: Legislators are talking about the rare necessity of extending their 90-day Annapolis stay to agree on a way to balance the budget.

March 25, 2003|By David Nitkin, Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn | David Nitkin, Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

IS THE 2003 General Assembly prepared to make history?

Maryland lawmakers have a long tradition of getting their work done on time and going home. Only once since 1917, when the state constitution was amended to include a balanced-budget provision, has the Assembly failed to pass a spending plan during its 90-day session.

The year was 1992, and William Donald Schaefer was governor, R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. was House speaker and, yes, Thomas V. Mike Miller was president of the Senate.

State tax revenues had dropped from one year to the next. Miller supported raising the sales tax to pay for state programs. Mitchell preferred income and corporate taxes.

A stalemate ensued, and Schaefer issued an executive order extending the session beyond its 90 days.

Within four days, a $400 million-plus tax package was approved, and the governor immediately convened a brief special session to consider other bills that were stuck behind the budget.

This year, lawmakers are again talking about an extended session, but the parallels to a decade ago are imprecise.

For one thing, tax revenues aren't dropping. Their rate of growth has slowed, but more tax money will come in next year than in this one.

Second, there is broad agreement about how to balance the budget for the coming year. Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. agree that spending cuts, a property tax increase and some increased corporate fees should be used.

The logjam this year is as much political as fiscal, centering on whether slot machines should immediately become part of the state's long-term fiscal plan (as Ehrlich and Miller want) or whether the proposal should be studied another year (as Busch desires).

The governor and legislative leaders also disagree on whether they should raise taxes now to pay for future mandated increases in education aid.

If the Assembly doesn't pass a budget by Monday, the governor must issue an executive order extending the session until a spending plan passes. If the budget isn't approved by April 7 -- the 90th day -- the extended session starts, and lawmakers can consider nothing else. All other bills die.

"The constitution envisions the General Assembly staying here until they have a budget bill -- and the budget has to be balanced," said Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the Assembly. "It's a great device."

It's just the principle, not the past donations

Last week's Senate debate on slot machines showed that developer and racetrack owner Bill Rickman Jr. has loyal friends in the General Assembly.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer was leading senators through the provisions of Ehrlich's bill when Sen. John J. Hafer rose to speak up for Rickman, who plans to build a racetrack in Allegany County.

Why, Hafer asked, was Rickman being asked to pay the same $5 million application fee for a license for 1,000 slots that other track owners were being asked to pay for 3,500 machines?

Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat who headed the work group on the bill, answered that he had been in touch with Rickman the previous weekend and that the track owner has raised no objection.

Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican, replied that he had been in "constant touch" with Rickman, who was traveling in London.

Rickman, Hafer told Kasemeyer, was not satisfied. "His satisfaction is dependent on my vote," Hafer said.

The syntax was fractured, but the intent was clear.

What accounts for this solicitude toward a businessman who does not live in Hafer's district? Campaign finance records show that W. M. Rickman Construction Co. and Rickman Research 1 Associates each contributed $1,000 to Hafer during the last election campaign.

But Hafer said afterward that it was fairness, not campaign donations, that earned his advocacy. "I absolutely do not know who donates to my campaign," he said.

Hafer voted for the slots bill Saturday, after he won an amendment lowering Rickman's application fee. Hafer said he supports slots at tracks, but was willing to vote "no" if he thought Rickman wouldn't do the deal.

"I'm not going to waste a crucial vote," he said.

Fund-raising flap thought to date back to last year

It appears tension remains high among East Baltimore legislators who were embroiled in a bitter campaign last year.

Lawmakers and other political figures in Annapolis are blaming Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden for a complaint to the State Ethics Commission in regard to fund raising for Del. Hattie N. Harrison and Del. Talmadge Branch.

The complaint accused lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who was convicted of mail fraud related to campaign contributions in 1994, of illegally raisng money for Harrison and Branch.

Political observers say they believe McFadden is behind the complaint because of bad blood between him and Harrison, a 30-year veteran of the Assembly he dropped from his ticket for a younger candidate.

But Harrison returned to Annapolis on a campaign slogan of "Don't Throw Mama from the Train." She and Branch said they told the commission that Bereano did not conduct fund raising on their behalf.

Bereano said that while he provided volunteer campaign support for Harrison, he did not raise money for either candidate. He called the accusation, "no more than political revenge ... for my very active campaign events for Del. Hattie Harrison."

While McFadden acknowledged the tension during the campaign, he said he did not file a complaint. "That is absolutely not true," he said. "I don't do things like that."

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