Stakes high at session eve

O'Malley says consensus near on $1.7 billion deficit plan

General Assembly -- Special Session

October 29, 2007|By Laura Smitherman and James Drew | Laura Smitherman and James Drew,SUN REPORTERS

Legislators are taking hiatus from their regular jobs and heading to Annapolis. Lobbyists are readying PowerPoint presentations and making the rounds with legislative leaders and top aides. Special-interest groups are planning a series of rallies on Lawyers Mall.

Everyone, it seems, has a stake in the special session of the Maryland General Assembly that begins today.

Gov. Martin O'Malley called legislators back to the State House and has proposed a legislative package. It would raise corporate and sales taxes while adjusting the personal income tax structure and providing property tax relief, boost funding for transportation, expand health care coverage for uninsured residents and put on the November 2008 ballot a referendum on whether to legalize slots.

The Democratic governor, still in his first year in office, hopes to accomplish his goals in a matter of weeks. Special sessions tend to focus on one issue, but O'Malley is gambling that he can bring all the parties together and quickly pass legislation to wipe out a $1.7 billion budget gap next year and pay for unmet state needs.

"We're on the verge of a consensus for all of the major components of this package," O'Malley said in an interview.

But O'Malley's proposal Friday to let voters decide whether to allow up to 15,000 slot machines among five locations is sure to be a contentious issue, even with the Democratic leadership apparently going along with a referendum.

"The reason I'm opposed is we should have done this some time ago," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said on WBAL Radio's Robert and Kendel Ehrlich Show. "It's wrongheaded and it's a way for people to dodge the issues."

He said he favors a yes-or-no vote by the legislature on the issue.

O'Malley and legislative leaders will have to maneuver through many other obstacles. Some legislators are calling for more budget cuts before taxes are raised, and many have filed bills to advance pet issues. Meanwhile, some legislators on both sides of the aisle oppose the very idea of a special session and say the issues should be addressed during the regular session that begins in January.

"There will be much angst. There really is going to be acrimony," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "And there will be little thanks for moving the ball forward to fund health care, education and paying the bills that have come due from years ago."

O'Malley has indicated he would be willing to compromise and expects that legislators will tweak his proposals, but he also has warned them that without new revenues, drastic cuts in state services and agencies would have to be made to balance the budget as required by law.

"A lack of success means a budget with severe and significant cuts," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "There's a lot riding on this."

The governor has had numerous meetings with legislators followed up with handwritten notes, as well as long chats with Miller and Busch.

As for his tax plan, O'Malley said already there is "greater reluctance" among some legislators to extend the sales tax to property management because of concerns it would be a regressive tax passed on to renters, who are disproportionately poor.

Few legislators relish raising taxes. Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and one of the longest-serving legislators, says he has "mixed emotions" about this session. He said he has voted for one tax during his tenure and voted against the Thornton plan, which increased spending on public education and has been partly blamed for the current budget woes.

"I'm not very happy with it," said Stone, who came to the Maryland Senate in 1967. "I think there's room to cut items in that budget so that everyone can share the pain."

The special session, which O'Malley called just two weeks ago, opens tonight with a joint session of the Senate and House of Delegates and a speech from the governor. The chambers then recess for several days of hearings on the governor's proposed legislation that will give the public a chance to weigh in.

Activity in the State House has been ramping up since O'Malley called for the special session, and dozens of employees at the Department of Legislative Services worked over the weekend to prepare bills. More than 50 requests have been sent to the nonpartisan office for bill drafting, said Warren Deschenaux, director of policy analysis.

Among the bills to be introduced is the "Tax Me More" legislation from Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and outspoken foe of tax increases. It would give Maryland taxpayers the option of contributing more during tax return time. "These Marylanders that want to invest more in their state government will have that option," Pipkin said.

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