O'Malley calls for `correcting course'

Governor urges legislators to join in fixing shortfall

General Assembly -- Special Session

October 30, 2007|By James Drew | James Drew,SUN REPORTER

Opening the special session that could define his four-year term, Gov. Martin O'Malley told Maryland lawmakers last night that "it is time for us to correct our course" by enacting his sweeping plan to eliminate a projected $1.7 billion shortfall in next year's budget.

Addressing a joint session of the General Assembly, a somber O'Malley used the eight-minute speech to argue that the challenge is "consensus," not the "capacity" for the state to shoulder a bigger tax burden. O'Malley has proposed a plan that would rely on new tax and slots revenues to address the state's fiscal woes.

"The storm is upon us, and this looming shortfall threatens to do grave damage to the very quality of life that our neighbors have elected us to defend," the Democratic governor said.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Republican who represents Carroll and Frederick counties, called the speech underwhelming.

"Here you have a speech where he's called everyone in to do an unpleasant task," Brinkley said. "I didn't hear any support. There were no applause lines. There was nothing where people were warm and fuzzy on this whole thing."

He criticized O'Malley for continuing to "play the blame game," such as when the governor called the projected deficit "inherited."

"It's time to get past that," Brinkley said. "He won the election; he's governing. Stop trying to blame [former Republican Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich. Stop trying to blame the legislature before."

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch praised O'Malley for hitting "all the right notes."

"He understands the challenge is an uphill battle, but the fact of the matter is that if we fall short, then all the things that have made us the wealthiest state of the union are going to suffer a setback," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.

He also defended O'Malley's reference to an "inherited" deficit.

"That's accurate. Ehrlich also inherited it. The difference is, he had four years to resolve it and didn't. You constantly hear that it's a spending problem, they spent more money than anyone."

The governor's speech, which Maryland Public Television aired live, capped a day dominated by rallies and closed-door legislative meetings about his plan.

At a Republican-led rally outside the State House before the start of the special session, lawmakers urged a crowd of several hundred to jam the phone lines of Democratic legislators and complain about proposed tax increases.

"What we are witnessing today is the flight of common sense from Maryland," said Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican. "Our founders knew overtaxing our citizens would lead to rebellion. Send a signal to Martin O'Malley and the liberal establishment that we've had enough."

Some Republican lawmakers accused O'Malley of twisting the truth about the state's fiscal health and complained that the special session was being forced upon them.

"There is no reason for us to be here," said Brinkley. "They want us to ram this through."

Meeting with reporters before the governor's address, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller accused Republican lawmakers of "walking off the floor and not participating."

"It's not a question of wheeler-dealing. It's not a question of backroom agendas. It's just a question of doing a lot of work. By [Republicans] taking themselves off the playing field, the governor has to deal with the Democratic Party, which is a big tent," said Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat.

Miller, a major supporter of legalizing slot machine gambling, said that if there aren't enough votes in the Senate to put a constitutional amendment allowing slots on the ballot, there would be time in January for both chambers to approve a slots bill. Putting the issue on the ballot requires at least a three-fifths majority in each chamber.

Sean Dobson, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said the governor needed last night to outline what he said are the two choices confronting lawmakers - "revenue or draconian cuts."

"So far, I have seen too many lawmakers missing the forest for the trees, squabbling over this and that element of the governor's plan, and missing the forest of gigantic cuts in a government that is too lean to begin with," Dobson said.

O'Malley wants to raise the state sales tax from 5 cents on the dollar to 6 cents and broaden it 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 also has proposed overhauling 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 rises in the cost of construction materials; limiting projected growth in education spending under the Thornton plan; and allowing up to 15,000 slot machines at five sites.

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