Few favor O'Malley's special session

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

October 21, 2007|By LARRY CARSON

There's very little enthusiasm among Howard County's legislators for the special session of the General Assembly set to begin Oct. 29, and some legislators are downright unhappy about it.

"Some people have to take an [unpaid] leave of absence from their jobs, and a month before Christmas they lose all that money," said Democratic Del. James E. Malone, a Baltimore County firefighter whose District 12A includes part of Howard.

Besides, what will members of other committees do while the budget and tax legislators hold hearings and debate Gov. Martin O'Malley's revenue package? "Who needs to stay there?" he asked.

"It's more the fear of the unknown" that could make for some irritable legislators, said Malone.

Most legislators seem apprehensive about what might happen because there is no consensus on O'Malley's proposals for ways to raise about $2 billion to balance the budget.

But Democrats said they are determined to work hard and try to reach agreement on a way to solve the predicted $1.7 billion revenue shortfall next year, while Republicans say the whole idea is an exercise in futility.

"I've got mixed emotions," said state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat and Senate majority leader.

"On one hand, every month we don't do something we get $60 [million] to $70 million further in the hole. On the other hand, to handle such an extensive menu of legislation in a short period of time has to concern you." Kasemeyer said he opposes expanding the sales tax to more services and especially opposes a proposal to capture more revenue from multistate corporations.

O'Malley's warnings that the potential debt is rising daily plays poorly with Republicans such as state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman.

"It frustrates me. We had the budget in front of us last spring. We could have done something then. We would have saved $500 million without cutting any program, but just by reducing increased spending," Kittleman said. "But they said, `Don't do anything.'" Then they come back later and say rush this because we're losing money."

He, like some others, would prefer to review taxes at the same time the budget is being considered, not "in a vacuum."

Howard's third senator, former James N. Robey, a Democrat and former county executive, said, "I'm going into it as a rookie," but he said he can see the wisdom of trying to get the contentious revenue issue out of the way before the regular 90-day session begins in January.

"We're all making sacrifices to do this, but that's our job," he said.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller agreed with Kittleman, calling the special session "a bad idea" and "an incredible waste of time."

Speaking at a lunchtime forum in Columbia on Wednesday, Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, rejected Republican criticism and defended the idea of changing the tax structure.

"Over the last four years we cut $1 billion out of the budget - cut 3,000 jobs and increased the rainy-day fund from $500 [million] to $750 million."

The problem dates back a decade, he said, when the General Assembly, over his opposition and that of Howard Del. Elizabeth Bobo, also a Democrat, lowered state income tax rates. Then, in 2002, the legislators approved the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission educational program without providing funding for it.

"We can't cut any further. We have cut to the bone," Turner said.

Republican Del. Gail H. Bates also spoke at the forum, and her message was quite different.

There's no urgency for a special session, she said. O'Malley's proposal to raise the sales tax will hurt the state's poorest residents the most, she told the human services providers at the meeting. "A lot of working families will get hurt by that."

Raising corporate taxes will only push costs to consumers, she said, and smokers will drive to Virginia to buy their smokes if Maryland cigarette taxes rise as O'Malley wants.

"I represent one of the wealthiest parts of Howard County," she said. "They're the people who will pay" higher income tax rates on upper-income people.

Bobo also said the special session is "not a wise idea," but for different reasons.

"I think the scales will be tilted too much on the side of the moneyed interests," Bobo said, "but I'm going to go in good spirit and participate the best way I can."

Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass said she told O'Malley to "please, count the votes" before calling a special session.

"That said, he's calling the session," she said. Pendergrass will again introduce her bill to require a statewide referendum on allowing slot machine gambling, she said. No Howard legislators - Democrat or Republican - expressed enthusiasm for O'Malley's slots proposal, either.

She and Del. Guy Guzzone attended County Executive Ken Ulman's announcement Tuesday of his new health access plan for the uninsured, and they said they are adamantly opposed to extending the sales tax to health club fees.

"It's counterproductive," Pendergrass said.

Guzzone said, "I won't vote for taxing health clubs. It's the absolutely wrong message. It just doesn't make any sense."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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