Md. legislative session faces familiar issues

After pleas for civility, discord emerges in opening ceremonies

General Assembly

January 15, 2004|By David Nitkin and Ivan Penn | David Nitkin and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Calls for civility had barely subsided yesterday when partisan jousting erupted in the Maryland General Assembly, which convened for a 90-day session that promises no shortage of fights over the budget, taxes, gambling and education.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was re-elected for an unprecedented 18th year as the chamber's leader and implored his colleagues to work toward common solutions like the Revolutionary-era statesmen whose giant portraits hung nearby.

But he quickly initiated a rule change that, if passed, would make it easier for the majority Democrats to end filibusters. In protest, the Senate's 14 Republicans abstained from voting on Miller's re-election, denying him the traditional unanimous victory.

In another contentious move, lawmakers prepared to flex their muscles by overriding some vetoes by Gov. Robert J. Ehrlich Jr., perhaps as soon as today. The last time that happened was 1989.

In the House of Delegates, Speaker Michael E. Busch and Ehrlich squabbled in their introductory remarks to the delegates over the importance of this year's session.

Pomp and ceremony of Maryland's 418th legislative session could not mask the difficult task that faces the state's 188 lawmakers in the weeks ahead.

Ehrlich will unveil a $22 billion budget next week that makes deep cuts to programs to fill a $730 million revenue shortfall and includes no money from slot machines. Still, administration officials are working on revisions to the slots-at-racetracks plan that failed last year, and the governor indicated yesterday that he would work to pass it.

"All of you have strong wills and egos, healthy egos," the governor told the Senate. "I have a fierce will to win; I have a fierce will to move this ball forward. That is a healthy tension. ... I think we are going to agree a lot, particularly in this body."

On the other side of the State House, the governor braced for a cooler welcome. Busch, the speaker, is poised to kill the governor's slots initiative and says a sales-tax increase is a fairer way to pay for education and other state programs.

Without mentioning gambling, in a prepared speech Busch outlined a package of five bills that Democratic leaders hope to pass. Among the measures: raising money for school construction by closing a real-estate transfer-tax loophole often used by corporations; and minimizing public university tuition increases while ensuring a steady stream of state funding.

"Let us face these challenges with an optimistic outlook and with the sense of collegiality and respect that is the hallmark of this body," Busch said. "While we will not always agree with one another, we must address controversial issues in a manner that does not personalize the debate."

Still, it did not take long for signs of discord to appear.

During his remarks to the House, Busch made the observation - conventional wisdom among experts in Maryland politics - that the second year of a four-year term is generally the most important in terms of legislative accomplishments. Expectations for the first year are generally dimmed by the large number of first-timers, and progress in the third and fourth year is often slowed by re-election concerns.

Later, in an otherwise routine greeting to the House, Ehrlich took issue with the speaker from his own podium. Every year, he said, is equally important.

County executives and other local officials who packed the imposing marble hallways of the nation's oldest continuously functioning state house were bracing for the bad news Ehrlich's budget will contain.

"The fear of every local government is that we'll be left to make the tough decisions to close the revenue shortfall, instead of those decisions being made here," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said in an interview.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens said her county didn't have much "wiggle room" to absorb cuts or cost shifts from the state. "There's so much riding on this session for local government," she said.

Legislators began the process yesterday of overriding Ehrlich's vetoes on some relatively minor bills, a move that would reassert some Democratic legislative authority in a government divided along party lines.

Earlier yesterday, Miller met privately with Democrats and offered a bleak assessment of the coming months. Two senators said he told them the issues regarding the budget and the battle with Republicans this session would be a "war."

Asked about the meeting, Miller said his speech "wasn't gloomy. It was just realistic. [The Republicans are] going to stick together on issues."

The proposed filibuster rule change, Republicans said, would silence their voices on gun rights, abortion and tax increases.

But Miller countered that the U.S. Senate shifted from a two-thirds cloture vote to a three-fifths requirement in the 1970s, and it was time for the state to follow: "We just want to make sure we can get our business done in 90 days."

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