O'Malley confident on session

Miller doubts governor has votes for tax-and-slots plan

October 16, 2007|By James Drew | James Drew,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Martin O'Malley, in ordering a special session later this month, expressed confidence yesterday that the gathering will produce a plan for closing Maryland's $1.7 billion budget gap. But calling lawmakers back to Annapolis also has the potential for handing him a significant defeat in a legislature controlled by his party.

O'Malley signed an executive order yesterday for a special session to start Oct. 29 to consider his tax-and-slots plan, despite vows from Republicans to fight any tax increases and warnings from the Senate president that votes to pass the controversial proposal are not in place.

"The time for delay is past," said O'Malley, a Democrat, at a news conference at the State House. "I am very, very optimistic about what the leaders of our state can accomplish when they know so much is at stake. We have the ability to come together and forge a consensus."

The governor has stressed the need to act immediately to begin generating new revenue so that the deficit does not balloon. He did not take a stance yesterday on whether the General Assembly should put a measure to legalize slot machine gambling up for referendum next year but said he was "inclined that way" to break the stalemate between the House of Delegates and the Senate on the issue.

Though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had been pushing for a special session, he told reporters before O'Malley's news conference that he had recommended holding off on calling one.

"I asked him if he had the votes, and he doesn't as of this day," said Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat who strongly supports legalizing slot machines. "I counseled him not to call a special session until he had the votes. He is determined to go forward."

"Should we say Miller was for the special session before he was against it?" O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese told reporters with a laugh when asked to comment - an apparent reference to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's much-ridiculed 2004 defense of his Iraq war votes.

O'Malley said he did not have a list of legislators who have committed to vote for his package.

"It won't be easy, but I believe the support is there," he said.

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he expects a compromise to be reached in the Democratic-controlled legislature during the special session.

"I don't think we will be at an impasse. While you have differences at partisan levels, in the end we all have to be responsible," said Conway, a Democrat who represents Worcester and Wicomico counties.

Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said O'Malley is taking a gamble in calling a special session without having first reached a consensus on how best to solve the state's financial woes. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, twice called special sessions only to veto the final products and have the Assembly override him.

"It could waste a lot of time and not produce any results," Norris said. "On the other hand, it could be close enough that he thinks he can forge a consensus. Either way, it's risky."

Given that O'Malley is proposing a "big, complicated package" of tax changes and slots revenues, Norris said, it will be hard to gain majority support in both the House and Senate.

Stephen J. Kearney, O'Malley's communications director, said: "The governor would not have called the special session if he didn't think there was a decent prospect of succeeding."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who'd expressed concern that lawmakers wouldn't be able to fully review O'Malley's proposal in a special session, was out of the state and unavailable for comment yesterday, an aide said.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, said he didn't know whether O'Malley has the votes.

"If he gets anything, he might get a sales tax [increase] out of it. He should not have called the special session. He is putting all of his chips on the line," Brinkley said.

O'Malley has said the special session is needed to keep the budget gap from growing wider.

He has said the state could face a $2.2 billion budget shortfall July 1 if lawmakers don't act now, rather than in the legislature's regular session starting in January.

O'Malley wants to raise the state sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6 percent and to broaden the levy to cover more services. He would cut the property tax by 3 cents per $100 in assessed value, double the cigarette tax to $2 a pack and increase the car titling tax.

He has also proposed an overhaul of the income tax structure to charge lower- and middle- income Marylanders less but top earners much more, raising the corporate income tax rate from 7 percent to 8 percent and closing so-called loopholes, tying gas-tax increases to the cost of construction materials, limiting projected growth in education spending under the Thornton plan, and legalizing slot machine gambling.

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