- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley told legislative leaders yesterday he plans to raise almost $2 billion in new revenues through a mix of taxes, including sales taxes, and “gaming initiatives” to close the state’s $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Mr. O’Malley met separately with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., both Democrats, to discuss the details of his plan. He is set to meet with General Assembly budget leaders this morning at the governor’s mansion.

Mr. Busch confirmed the meeting and said the governor’s plan also includes an increase in corporate income tax.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive approach of how to do this, and it won’t be an easy undertaking,” he said.

Mr. O’Malley, who often derided partisan rancor in Annapolis under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has kept Republican leaders from the meetings.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, Western Maryland Republican, said Mr. O’Malley appears to be trying to massage Democratic leaders in the Assembly before taking his plan public. He said unity among top Democrats may mute the inevitable criticism that comes with new taxes.

“They’re trying to figure out which poison pill to swallow and get everybody on the same sheet of music,” Mr. Brinkley said.

“Gaming initiatives” is almost certainly a reference to legalized slot machines in Maryland. However, lawmakers would not say for certain.

Mr. O’Malley “has a number for how much he’d like to raise from gaming, how much he’d like to raise from taxes,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, who reiterated his opposition to a special General Assembly session to resolve the budget issue. “I don’t think anybody should expect us to come in here in 24, 48 [or] 72 hours of time and deal with $2 billion in revenues.”

Mr. Busch said the governor also plans to support expanded health care and new environmental spending through a “Green Fund.” Both priorities passed in the House during this year’s session but failed in the Senate.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, left office with $1.8 billion in the state savings account. Mr. O’Malley drew $1.2 billion from the state’s coffers this year to cover a $1 billion shortfall in his first budget.

Since taking office, Mr. O’Malley has cut $85 million from the state’s $15 billion general fund, which is expected to come up $1.5 billion short next year. The shortfall is the result of state spending growing faster than tax receipts.

The meetings this week are the first public sign that Mr. O’Malley has a specific budget plan he is shopping among lawmakers.

The governor’s office would not release details of the plan but is expected to hold a series of press conferences later this week.

Mr. O’Malley “wants to take the opportunity to brief the members of the General Assembly,” said O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. “At the appropriate time, we’ll talk to the general public.”

Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, also declined to discuss the plan.

“How the governor wants to divulge his plan is his prerogative,” he said.

Mr. O’Malley’s separate meetings with Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch underscored the continuing divide between the two lawmakers.

Mr. O’Malley has recently begun pushing harder for a special session and has continued to support legalized slot machines — priorities Mr. Miller has advanced and Mr. Busch has opposed.

But Mr. Busch’s announcement that the governor would support expanded health care and new development fees for environmental cleanup puts Mr. O’Malley at odds with Mr. Miller, who opposed both measures when they came before the General Assembly this year.

The exact plan to close the budget shortfall remains a closely guarded secret among Mr. O’Malley and his staffers, though they have floated many proposals throughout the summer, including raising the tobacco, sales and corporate income taxes and legalizing slot machines.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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