State's leaders avoid the big issue

Democrats decline to deal with ways to close budget gap

General Assembly

April 09, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

When the General Assembly adjourns tonight, leaders in the state Senate, the House of Delegates and the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley will have demonstrated that they can work together - so long as they ignore the fundamental issues that divide them.

The 423rd session of the Maryland General Assembly is meandering to a close as lawmakers work out technical details on remaining issues.

Legislators considered issues such as immigration and the abolition of the death penalty this year but appear likely to leave Annapolis without having gotten bogged down in divisive debates like those that occurred during recent sessions over slot machines, electric rates and malpractice reform.

But lawmakers are also likely to leave without giving any clear indication of how they will resolve the deep divide between the Senate and the House of Delegates over how to close a gap between revenues and expenditures that could top $1.5 billion next year. O'Malley has promised to spend the next few months developing a consensus, but he has not yet made overtures to bring legislators together on the issue.

"It concerns me a great deal," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a veteran Republican lawmaker from the Eastern Shore. "It's hard to be governor. It's hard to lead, but you've got to be willing to lead, and I haven't seen it."

For O'Malley, the decision to hold back on addressing the deficit was strategic, born of a conviction that Annapolis needed time to settle down after four years of divided government and that it would be wrong to ask Marylanders to pay more taxes before he has had a chance to reduce the cost of government.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor's efforts to reach out to legislators - including Democratic leaders, Republicans and newly elected lawmakers - has laid the groundwork for compromise on difficult issues.

"We've created an atmosphere where the governor and the General Assembly are working together to improve the quality of life for the families of Maryland," Abbruzzese said. "We have accomplished a great deal together, and I think we've been able to do that because we haven't allowed ourselves to get sidetracked before we have an opportunity to make our government more efficient."

O'Malley, a Democrat, came to Annapolis determined to avoid a repeat of the bitter fights over slot machines that drowned out other issues during the term of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The new governor said he wanted to avoid debating slots or other possible solutions to Maryland's budget problems until he has had time to find efficiencies in state government and develop a comprehensive solution.

He felt strongly enough about putting off that discussion that he made it a key point in the conclusion of his State of the State speech in January.

"In the days of this first session, I hope, my friends, that we will be able to spend the vast majority of our time solving problems and coming together around the solutions about which, really, there is so very, very much consensus that already exists in both chambers, even across party lines - and for which, I might add, there is a considerable amount of pent-up, public demand," O'Malley said.

In a sense, he succeeded. No slot bill made it to the floor of the House or Senate, and the issue consumed no more than one long afternoon committee hearing.

But his hope that the legislature would spend its time solving the other major problems of the state was not entirely fulfilled.

Legislators appear likely to finish the session tonight with a few memorable accomplishments, notably a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, a requirement that cars sold in Maryland pollute less and a package of protections for residents whose homes are subject to ground rent.

But what those issues and others have in common is that they do not cost the state money. Proposals that would require a significant outlay got caught amid disagreement between the House and Senate over how to approach the looming fiscal crisis, and that dispute, in turn, was largely a proxy battle for the debate on slot machine gambling.

Budget negotiations last week between the House and Senate showed how close to the surface the dispute lies.

One of the few pieces of drama in the waning days of the legislative session stemmed from an unusual delay in the approval of O'Malley's proposed $30 billion budget.

Negotiators from the two chambers agreed Saturday to the outlines of a deal, nearly a week behind schedule, and planned to wait until today to return formally to the bargaining table, leaving until the last day of the session the one thing that legislators are required by the state constitution to do: pass a balanced budget.

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