Putting the old verities to the test in Annapolis

October 21, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Maybe it's just the early jockeying for position, but the special legislative session set for Oct. 29 will test some home truths.

Democratic governors of Maryland almost always have their way with the legislature. The governor has immense power that he is almost always ready to use to push his agenda.

This year may illustrate that dynamic yet again, but there are differences that threaten the governor's effort to solve the state's budget dilemma: a $1.7 billion deficit that will grow if more revenue is not provided.

This session is a forced march into a reality created by Democratic governors and legislators. They gave Maryland some goodies without providing a way to pay for them. The bills have come due.

In earlier financial crises, the General Assembly's fiscal wizards solved big money problems under the general radar scope. They shifted things around, recalculated formulas and stopped covering various expenses, leaving no fingerprints to be pointed at later by angry voters or opportunistic opponents.

Not this time. Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed tax increases have been all over the papers.

Everybody's watching.

He may or may not have succeeded in selling the need for more money. He may even have convinced many that the collection of the big money needs to start sooner rather than later, thus his emergency session.

It's the how of the whole thing that could jam the gears. It's one thing to recognize the need for more money - not even for new spending, again, but to take care of obligations already on the books. The taxpayer won't even get anything much that's new. This is why wiser heads cautioned against passing big public education bills without having the money to for it. (Why? Hint: It was an election year.)

If all of that were not enough, Mr. O'Malley walks into his special session uncertain of support from the usually supportive Montgomery County.

Montgomery is the wealthiest enclave in one of the nation's wealthiest states. And its representatives have been almost proud to serve in that role. Pride, though, has been replaced by a concern for fairness.

It may be no surprise to learn that as much as 80 percent of the new income tax revenue requested by the governor would come from Montgomery. That figure is logical in the arithmetic of the thing: A higher income tax is likely to hit hardest where the income is highest.

That doesn't make it an easier sell. Legislators in Montgomery will not come to Annapolis ready to open the wallets of their constituents.

"The income tax proposal is an absolute nonstarter for Montgomery," says state Sen. Rona E. Kramer, now in her second term. The increased tax is bad enough, she says, but the burden thrust upon her county is even more provocative.

"How can anyone say that's fair?" she asks.

And it gets worse for Montgomery. Only 15 percent of the big bite finds its way back to Montgomery. And then the county taxpayer realizes anew that he or she is still responsible for most of the costs of public schools.

One of her constituents lamented to her that $150,000 income doesn't make you particularly rich in Montgomery. Needs such as child care cost more there, so the prospect of sending more money to Annapolis leaves constituents in a sour mood.

Nor is Senator Kramer's angst eased by the move to legalize slot machine gambling. The governor's plan contemplates $500 million a year from slots once they are up and running. But prospects for passage are dim in the House of Delegates, so the governor suggests taking the whole thing to referendum.

Bad idea, says Senator Kramer. A referendum is a dodge, she says. "The voters send us down here to deal with the tough issues," she said.

She is led by all of this to a conclusion commonly heard in Annapolis circles: "There may be so much that we can't deal with it in a special session. The whole thing is in trouble."

That doesn't mean there's no solution. "It's possible we could come up with something," she said. She didn't sound optimistic.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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