Lawmakers divided on need for special session

April 14, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

State lawmakers representing Washington County suspect they’ll be called back to Annapolis for a special session on budget matters.

But they say three months should have been enough for the legislature to finish its work. It should never have come to this.

However, they don’t all agree on whether a special session is necessary.

Some Republicans are content to leave the approved budget as it is.

But two local Democrats said cuts in that budget are severe and need to be countered with a tax package that was supposed to have passed during the regular session.

The Maryland General Assembly is required to pass a budget each year. That happened during the session that concluded on Monday, but other measures connected to the budget stalled and didn’t pass before the legislature adjourned at midnight.

One was a package of tax increases that was supposed to provide revenue for the budget.

Another was a bill — known as the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, or BRFA — that is passed annually to pave the way for certain budget items.

One BRFA change this year was a gradual shift in teacher pensions costs from the state to the counties.

A plan to add a casino in Prince George’s County and table games at all Maryland casinos, if approved in a referendum, also became attached to the budget process and didn’t pass.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch accused Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of holding up the budget to get the gambling bill passed.

Miller countered by saying the gaming expansion would have provided the state money to plug more of its budget gap and avoid future tax increases. He said the tax-increase bill reached his desk only a half-hour before the session was to adjourn.

So far, O’Malley hasn’t said definitively that there will be a special session or when it will be. He has called for Busch and Miller to work out their differences first.

O’Malley said Friday that he planned to meet with the legislative leadership in the next several days to discuss a special session, according to the Associated Press.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, guessed on Friday that a special session will be held in May. That would give Busch, Miller and O’Malley — all Democrats — time to agree on the scope of a special session.

The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Not ‘doomsday’

The budget that passed, nicknamed a “doomsday” spending plan, calls for $512 million in cuts, particularly to education, out of roughly $36 billion in spending.

But Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, pointed out that fiscal 2013 spending still would be about $700 million more than in fiscal 2012.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, called it a “live within your means” budget, a phrase several Republican lawmakers are using.

“I do not think it would be catastrophic,” Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said. “If it worked for 2012, it can work for 2013.”

Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, said it’s one of the first reasonable state budgets approved in many years.

“I’m thankful that what happened happened,” he said, referring to the breakdown of certain parts of the budget package.

Hough said local governments might feel stung, but the budget will be less harmful than what was expected to pass, including the teacher-pension shift.

However, the shift of pension costs and other budget-related components won’t simply be dropped, said Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany.

“The governor has no choice but to call for a special session,” he said.

Donoghue and Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick/Washington, said the cuts are too drastic to stand.

“We’ve got to firm up the budget and get the Prince George’s gaming issue out of the way,” Donoghue said.

“I think it was wrong that we didn’t finish ... but it’s worse if we don’t (come back),” Young said.

Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said the cuts, as passed, will cost about $7.5 million total for the three counties he represents.

But those are cuts from increased levels of funding — which, he said, localities have come to expect — not current levels of funding.

Edwards said the budget process should start with “level funding,” counting on the same amount year to year, then add what’s necessary, instead of assuming annual increases.

Lack of focus?

Failing to finish the work makes the legislature and the administration look bad, Edwards said.

Shank suggested that O’Malley was too busy working on other parts of his agenda, such as offshore wind and same-sex marriage, to pay much attention to budget negotiations.

Same-sex marriage debate dominated the legislature for the first half of the session, Hough said.

Near the end of the session, when Easter weekend and the Baltimore Orioles’ opening day arrived, lawmakers had periods of down time before an unusually late budget scramble on the final day, Myers said.

If the legislature were truly focused, Serafini said, “we could have had a 60-day session and been done.”

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