A hot-button topic among the naysayers of the General Assembly's special session -- those lawmakers and activists who believe it was premature to try to close a $1.7 billion budget gap without having Gov. Martin O'Malley's next budget in hand -- is how much the session is costing taxpayers.
But according to state analysts, that's not an easy number to pin down, largely because of the unusual nature of this session.
In the past, a good benchmark was $23,000 to $25,000 a day, according to Karl S. Aro, executive director of the Department of Legislative Services. That would put the total so far at nearly $400,000, but that number could be vastly overestimated because this session has had a very narrow focus, Aro said.
This go-around, neither the House of Delegates nor the state Senate has convened on a daily basis, and much of the work of the session has taken place within a few committees responsible for taxes, spending and revenues. For that reason, lawmakers' expenses -- usually the lion's share of the costs -- are harder to estimate, Aro said.
A better idea of the costs will be available once legislators submit those expenses after the session, he said, although it could take longer if lawmakers delay.
Until then, legislators continue to debate whether the session is necessary.
Del. Michael D. Smigiel, Sr., a Republican representing Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's counties, said the session carries more costs than legislators' expenses and overtime for state employees.
"We have a balanced budget through June 30," he said. "I don't think that this is necessary at all. Anything that needed to be done could have been done [next year]. And there will be added costs, because when we come back next session, I guarantee you we'll have at least five or six bills to fix the damage we've done this session because we didn't take the time to do it right."
But Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee who has played an influential role during the special session, said it will allow the state to begin collecting additional tax revenue earlier.
"In terms of what it costs the citizens of Maryland, I think it's well worth our time to come down and have a special session," he said.
Today in Annapolis
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to vote this morning on legislation that would set the outlines of a slot machine gambling program if a November 2008 referendum on the issue is approved by voters. The remaining course of the special legislative session could hinge on its outcome.
House leaders hope to bring the bill to the floor later in the day for final passage. The Senate is scheduled to reconvene in the afternoon, and the outcome of the House vote could determine what action the Senate takes on the House referendum bill and several tax measures.