` 2 Mikes ' at center of budget battle

Miller, Busch differences loom as obstacles for O'Malley to overcome

October 21, 2007|By James Drew and Laura Smitherman | James Drew and Laura Smitherman,Sun reporters

Just a few months ago at a bill-signing in Annapolis, Gov. Martin O'Malley stood between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch and held up their hands, saying it "felt good" to work together.

But leading up to a special legislative session called by O'Malley to tackle a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, it remains to be seen whether they can come together again. Potentially standing in the way are the long-standing differences between the "two Mikes," and it might well be up to the governor to find a way to bridge that divide.

Busch and Miller have met twice in the past six weeks - once to be briefed by O'Malley on his budget plan, which relies on higher taxes and legalizing slot machines, and then last week to discuss the logistics of the session, which begins Oct. 29. The three plan to meet again tomorrow, possibly to review the specific language of the tax and revenue legislation that O'Malley intends to propose.

Busch and Miller, who have been in power together for almost five years, insist that talk of tension between them is overblown. But others say that the friction is palpable, ranging from the bitterly personal to differences of opinion on policy.

"It's personal, and it's mostly about slots, but it's also about ego," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "I don't think there's `two Mike' fatigue yet, but it depends on how the governor handles it."

Since O'Malley started rolling out his plans last month, both Miller and Busch have largely avoided detailed comments on the complex tax package, which includes raising corporate income taxes, lowering property taxes and shifting the income tax burden toward the wealthy. But the leaders of the legislative chambers have already disagreed on whether a special session was needed.

O'Malley, in a written statement, said: "I have an enormous amount of trust in and respect for the Senate President and Speaker - and good relationships with both.

"We wouldn't have called the General Assembly back for a special session unless I had good faith in their ability to come together for the good of our state," the governor said.

Yet Miller went on WBAL radio yesterday with O'Malley's former political rival, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and raised doubts about the special session's ability to close the divide over slots or to solve the $1.7 billion deficit.

"He may be thwarted in his goals to pass slots," Miller said. "We're not going to get $2 billion in this special session."

He added that O'Malley should consider meeting with Ehrlich to hash out a plan that Republicans could support.

"Like George Bush and Bill Clinton - sit down, talk together, maybe ... come out with a reasonable solution," he said.

The joint reign of Busch and Miller began when Busch ascended to the speaker's position in 2003; Miller has been Senate president since 1987.

Their most high-profile conflict has been over legalizing slot machine gambling. Miller has championed the proposal as a way to raise money for the state and bolster a struggling horse racing industry. Busch took on the role of the chief slots opponent during Ehrlich's term as governor. Though both chambers managed to pass versions of slots legislation in 2005, they failed to reconcile differences.

More recently, Busch and Miller have clashed over such issues as health care and transportation funding.

With his shock of white hair, Miller moves with the swagger expected of the longest-serving Senate president in the country. A conservative Democrat who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties, he is a lawyer who uses colorful language when dismissing the idea that personal animus with the speaker is the biggest obstacle to solving the budget impasse.

Busch, whose bulky build is a reminder of his days as a football star at Temple University, is a liberal Democrat from Anne Arundel County, where he oversees the youth athletics program in the county parks and recreation department. He strikes a folksier tone than Miller but has proved adept at sticking to his principles.

The two Mikes have contrasting leadership styles - Busch tends to be a consensus-builder within his Democratic caucus, while Miller leads with a stronger hand over his chamber. Those styles are, at least in part, dictated by the makeup and size of the chambers.

Despite their differences, they have much in common. They are ambitious politicians who worked hard to help O'Malley defeat Ehrlich last year.

O'Malley's call for a special session could bring conflict between Busch and Miller to a head, say officials who have worked with both men.

"When you have strong personalities, sometimes you have conflict," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who served eight years in the House, including four with Busch as speaker.

Miller describes himself as more "pragmatic" than Busch but says he has no personal animosity toward the speaker.

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