Tough choices

Q&A: Amid a nationwide economic slump, Maryland's powerful legislative leaders discuss the hard decisions facing this year's General Assembly, which starts Wednesday

Thomas V. Mike Miller

Senate President

January 11, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

What is the mood coming into the legislative session this year?

We are very carefully optimistic. We've overcome much more severe crises in our state's history than what we consider a yearlong blip on our economic radar. ... I'm an historian, and I know what our country has gone through in the past, and this is nothing. It's a deep recession. We're not facing a world war, we're not facing a depression, we're not facing a plague. We can learn from it, and we can survive.

How do you manage a projected revenue gap of $1.9 billion?

You manage it like a businessman manages a business. That means cutting where you can, and that's what this governor and Board of Public Works is going to do.

The first thing they've got to do is agree to level fund [programs]. Level funding is not a dirty word. It means our constituent groups might not get the increases they hope to. Hopefully, we can provide increases for next year.

Might we see cuts to areas that have previously been considered sacred cows?

You're going to see cutbacks maybe on some of the things we were overly generous with in the past, such as school construction ... cutbacks on legislative bond projects. We've banned all legislative travel.

With such a serious revenue shortfall, why is there no serious consideration of raising taxes on areas that haven't been touched in decades, like alcohol?

We're talking about billions of dollars, not millions. The last fiscal note I saw [on a proposed alcohol tax] generated $20 million in revenues. In my opinion, the best tax to raise at this point in time would be a gas tax ... but quite frankly, the political will is not there. If there was a will, that would be the best service to the public.

Other than the budget, what issues will take the spotlight this year?

Education, health care, labor. There will be a lot of issues dealing with public safety, for example the medevac helicopters, police surveillance and domestic violence.

Might there finally be resolution to contentious issues that have deadlocked the General Assembly for years, such as a repeal of the death penalty?

I don't think the votes are there in the [Senate Judicial Proceedings] committee to move the vote forward. That might change, and if it does, the Senate will be tied for days on end [with floor debates]. I don't lobby those issues. Members have made up their minds on their own ... and I just don't think there's going to be any movement at this time in terms of capital punishment.

I've got 12 small grandchildren. If someone kidnapped [and harmed] a child, personally, I don't want the state sustaining that person.

What midterm grade would you give Gov. Martin O'Malley? And what advice would you offer him as he begins his third full legislative session?

I'd give him a B. He's not afraid of hiring competent people, he has an excellent staff and he's an extremely hard worker. I think my only reluctance to give him an A is that I would ask him to move more quickly than we have in the past in terms of dealing with the fiscal crisis.

He's got a good personality and a good work ethic and in almost every instance I believe his views are in sync with the majority of the Maryland public.

Will the Republican minority play a significant role this year?

They have an opportunity to play a significant role. For example, [recently] I was at a farm banquet with [House Minority Leader] Tony O'Donnell. He and I gave almost the exact same messages to farmers there assembled. If that continues, we have a great opportunity to work together.

But if the Republicans try to make Martin O'Malley look bad or take political shots just for partisanship purposes, then obviously their role is not going to be so important. For the most part, they are very honest, hardworking and good contributors.

Finally, do you see the slots issue returning this session? To spur interest from developers in a tough economy, might the General Assembly revisit the high tax rate imposed on would-be gambling operators?

Not this year. We'll see what the [slots] commission recommends.

We're expecting investors to come in and put in a pleasure palace, put in a lot of money and market their product, and yet their profit margin is the slimmest of anywhere in the United States. In my opinion the amount of money an investor is going to receive [under current law] is going to hamper their ability to bring a quality product. At some point in time ... those numbers [tax rates] are going to have to come down.

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