No talk, no fun, no lawmaking

Standoff: The fight over taxes and slots has left lawmakers frustrated -- and with little to do.

General Assembly

April 08, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF


A caption on the front page of yesterday's Sun said that Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch is refusing to allow a vote on the governor's slots plan. In fact, an amended form of the governor's bill is still under consideration by a House committee and has not come before the full House.

An elite Annapolis lobbying firm rented a function room Monday night, poured meatballs into chafing dishes and waited for throngs of lawmakers to arrive for a can't-miss college basketball party.

The crowds never came. With a week to go in the General Assembly session, legislators who should have been eager to unwind after a marathon day of negotiating and voting had done little of either. So they went home.

"We had a big-screen television. We had chicken wings," said Laurence Levitan, a former 16-year Senate committee chairman who is a principal with Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver. "Everyone was gone."

State House veterans say they have never seen a legislative season quite like this. The calcified standoff over taxes, slots and the budget between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the presiding officers of the Senate and the House has frozen much of what normally goes on in the capital with just days left in the session.

"I don't think Maryland has ever quite been in this situation in the past," said Levitan, who was a lawmaker for 24 years.

Yesterday was another in a series filled with private meetings that yielded no progress. House Speaker Michael E. Busch met with Democratic fiscal leaders and again huddled with the state budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.

But DiPaula won't propose the $500 million in new revenues that House leaders say is needed to complement a slots plan to balance future budgets. No slots vote is forthcoming in the House. And Busch, like his Senate counterpart, is talking openly about an extended session - beyond Monday's scheduled adjournment - to settle the state's financial affairs. That has happened just once since 1917, when the state constitution was amended to include a balanced-budget provision.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller started the stalemate a week ago, refusing to appoint members to a negotiating committee to settle budget differences with the House until Busch allows a vote on the governor's slots plan.

No negotiations

But not just budget and tax bills are in limbo. Not a single negotiating committee has been appointed for legislation in which differences exist between the two State House chambers. Typically, a few dozen would be meeting at this point in the session.

Just over 200 bills and resolutions, of more than 2,500 introduced, have been approved by both the House and the Senate. In typical years, the chambers would hold multiple sessions a day; lawmakers this week have broken for lunch, gone to their committee rooms and are done working with the sun still shining.

"I have never seen it more disorganized. Gridlock," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former governor. "Nobody compromises. Nobody talks."

`A holding pattern'

Hired guns aren't sure how to fill their hours. Gambling interests are hanging outside virtually every closed-door meeting and lounging in chairs in committee rooms where scheduled sessions had been canceled.

Lobbyists are still racking up big bucks, but there's little they can do to press their case because almost all legislation is stuck behind the budget and slots.

"They're just holding all these bills," said J. William Pitcher, one of the capital's highest-earning business advocates and a former aide to then-Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg. "You go and talk to people, and they say, `There's nothing I can do about it.'"

Increasingly, lawmakers say they are frustrated by the lack of progress.

"We're in a holding pattern," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "It's like you're flying back from a long trip, and you're tired, and there is a storm over the Baltimore airport. You're circling for hours, and you're getting more tired and grumpy. You know the storm will break. But right now, it's very uncomfortable."

Bills that await important votes are languishing. The House has delayed for several days a decision on a historic preservation tax credit program, an Ehrlich priority. The Senate has yet to vote on the governor's transportation package, which includes a hefty increase in vehicle registration fees.

Lawmakers have passed time with other pursuits. Several members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee went to Tuesday afternoon's Orioles game, drawing the ire of the House speaker, who said he was toiling toward a fiscal compromise.

Final moments

Leaders insist that they have plenty of time to accomplish their tasks before the Monday deadline. Miller has told the Senate that they may be meeting Easter Sunday to complete their work.

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