Not so special?

September 05, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley has floated quite a few trial balloons in recent months, all related to solving Maryland's projected $1.5 billion deficit. But for all his declarations, there's precious little sign of any consensus in Annapolis, at least not yet. The governor's latest offering - that he would like to see a special session this fall - underscores this incongruity.

The appeal of a special session is obvious: It could narrow the focus. Without one, the regular 90-day session that begins in January is likely to be dominated by budget-related debate. And if legislators choose to raise taxes - as the size of the deficit virtually guarantees - they could do so sooner rather than later. That may not sound appealing, but for budget-balancing purposes it can be extremely helpful.

This strategy requires Mr. O'Malley and the General Assembly leadership to reach a general agreement in advance. We've seen what happens when special sessions are convened without that. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tried this with medical malpractice several years ago and then vetoed the result. He had devoted too much time to stirring up the health care community but not enough to picking up votes.

In a special session, lawmakers would not be able to ponder the full range of alternatives because next year's budget - the one that's in danger of running at a deficit - won't be submitted by the governor until January, and legislators can't cut a budget that's not before them. How can the governor expect to win broad support for tax increases if no one knows precisely what all the alternatives would be?

That raises another issue - the lack of a truly scary and immutable deadline. Raising taxes is a tough vote for any politician who wants to stay in office. Many of the same lawmakers who will be asked to vote favorably on taxes now failed to speak up in 2002 when $1.3 billion in Thornton education aid was approved by the General Assembly without a funding source. That's a major reason that the state budget faces a deficit July 1, 2008.

Getting the leaders of the House and Senate to agree on revenue issues will be difficult, particularly if slot machines play a role. But a shortcut isn't the answer. What's needed are long hours of hearings, testimony and debate so lawmakers and the general public can better understand the problem - and the various solutions.

Then in January, everything can be on the table, from transportation funding to health care. Those affected by potential spending cuts can be heard as well. It will be what lawmakers refer to ruefully as "crunch time." But at least lawmakers will have to take action - by law, the legislature has to approve a balanced budget. That puts a lot of pressure on state senators and delegates, but it's what they were elected to do.

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