O'Malley mounts budget session blitz

Amid resistance, governor presses urgency to solve $1.7 billion deficit

October 03, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Despite resistance from House leaders of both parties, Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he would not back off of his call for a special session of the General Assembly to tackle the state's $1.7 billion budget crisis. Instead, the governor embarked on a feverish push - both in private meetings with lawmakers and via a flurry of media appearances - to sell his plan as a "consensus" proposal.

O'Malley cautioned that the longer lawmakers wait to debate the details of his plan, which includes divisive initiatives to legalize slot machine gambling and raise the sales tax, the higher the state's deficit climbs. On a personal note, the governor said that attempting to solve the state's budget crisis is "probably the toughest thing politically that I've ever had to do."

"Once all of us have an opportunity to look at the pros and cons, I think it's very hard to come to any other conclusion but that we need to address this sooner rather than later," he told reporters.

Though O'Malley used the word consensus at every possible public moment yesterday to describe his plan, state lawmakers appear far from it.

The governor has crafted a comprehensive package, elements of which are sure to rankle different constituencies and foster unexpected cross-party alliances both in favor of and against the plan's particulars. Republican leaders of both chambers are likely to oppose the tax increases, for example, and could be joined by Democrats representing more traditionally conservative areas like Baltimore County. Meanwhile, the long-simmering Annapolis battle over slots is not likely to simply subside at O'Malley's urging, even if some reluctant Democrats get onboard.

But before O'Malley sets a firm date for a special session, which he can call without the General Assembly's approval, he is urging Democrats to get on the same page. In closed-door meetings with Senate and House Democrats yesterday, he made his case. Many remain undecided, however, about the merits of jumping into a special session to debate a plan with so many potential pitfalls.

Agreeing with O'Malley, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway said that by postponing the debate until the 90-day General Assembly session begins in January the state loses possible revenue - up to $500 million by O'Malley's count. But Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, said that having the next fiscal year budget in front of him, which he would not see during a special session, would help him see the state's entire fiscal picture.

"I could persuade myself pro or con either way," he said.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat and former state delegate from Montgomery County, called a special session "unwise." He said that state sales tax revenue has been in decline over the past year, which could muddy Maryland's long-term economic picture.

"I'm troubled as the chief fiscal officer of this state to see this rush in advance of information that could be very important, so I hope that the special session gets postponed and they pick this up in the regular session," he said. "My concern is that calling a special session and adding a revenue package to the economy before we understand what is going on is reckless in the face of the volatile revenue figures that we're seeing."

Franchot, who has not been shy about his opposition to O'Malley's slots proposal, said he plans to hold news conferences in Baltimore and Silver Spring tomorrow with religious leaders and elected officials who oppose slots.

"The message will be: Don't be confused by slots at the racetrack," Franchot said. "It may take a few years but they'll be in your neighborhood. It's a relentlessly predatory industry, and state after state has showed they can't be contained."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and his committee leaders are making plans to start holding public hearings on O'Malley's plan by the middle of this month, with the expectation that O'Malley will call the session for early November, a Senate staffer said. But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who fervently opposes slots, remains firmly opposed to a special session. He told The Sun this week that he wants the public to have ample time to consider the details of and weigh in on the complicated plan and doesn't think either would happen during a monthlong special session.

O'Malley's plan includes a proposal to legalize slot machine gambling and install enough machines statewide to raise at least $500 million annually. He is also advocating an increase in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, a doubling of the cigarette tax to $2 a pack and an increase in the car titling tax. He supports an increase in the corporate income tax and would restructure the state income tax to put a greater burden on wealthier residents while easing payments for lower-income Marylanders, a proposal that has sparked opposition from lawmakers who represent affluent Montgomery County.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said he supports a special session but that one question looms large: "Will we be able to reach a consensus with the House?" he said. "That's probably my biggest concern."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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