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Special session surely ahead for Maryland legislators

Without votes on revenue bills, budget has $512M in cuts

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Ever since the General Assembly adjourned at midnight Monday without approving a set of tax and revenue increases, the question in political circles has been not if, but when, lawmakers will be called back to the State House to pass the legislation.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic leaders have made abundantly clear that they are dissatisfied with the approved budget that includes $512 million in cuts triggered by the failure of the revenue bills.

It appears to be a relative formality that lawmakers will return, but many are urging a cooling-off period after wrapping a 90-day session that ended with finger-pointing and frustration all around.

"I think it would be smart to wait a couple of weeks for people who need to go home, relax, get some sleep and chill out," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat.

If a special session is called, it likely would start well in advance of July 1, the day the new fiscal year begins and the approved budget would go into effect.

State law says that the governor can order a special session during which the assembly can meet for no more than 30 days.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has refused to say publicly whether he plans to call in lawmakers, but he has said he thinks the approved budget — widely referred to by Democrats as a "doomsday" proposal — fails to provide enough money for education, local police and county aid.

The assembly itself can call a special session if majorities in the 47-member Senate and 141-member House petition to do so.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has remained quiet on whether he wants to reconvene for the state's first special session not involving redistrictingsince2007 and its second since 1992.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is jumping at the idea, insisting that lawmakers can pass the failed revenue bills — which include planned income-tax hikes and a shift of teacher-pension costs to counties — in just one or two days, ending any lingering animosity about the way the regular session ended.

Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat, came up with the idea in February to introduce the "doomsday" cuts as a way to scare Democrats into voting for revenue increases.

The cuts were included in the budget as a contingency, designed only to go into effect if the revenue proposals failed.

While many Democrats want to undo the cuts and add revenues, Republicans say the approved budget is an improvement and points the state in the right direction.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said the plan avoids what could be harmful tax increases during "the worst economy in 75 years."

House Republicans have pointed out the plan still increases state spending by about $700 million over last year — an increase that is far less than Democrats wanted but is also not the flat budget that many Republicans preferred.

"That's hardly a doomsday. For a lot of reasons, this is not a bad place to be," said Mr. O'Donnell, Calvert Republican. "We should not enable tax addicts."

Republicans have worried that a special session could give Democrats time to pass not only the failed revenue bills but also to push new proposals in a scene reminiscent of the 2007 special session that included $1.4 billion in new taxes.

Mr. Barve said that he does not expect that to happen, and that his preferred approach would be to meet briefly and simply reintroduce the failed revenue bills in the same form that they stood Monday when lawmakers were expected to approve them but ran out of time.

He said he would not expect lawmakers to consider Mr. O'Malley's proposals to raise the gas tax or sales tax to help fund transportation and expects House members to wait until 2013 to consider the Senate's calls for table games and a new casino in Prince George's County.

"That's the ideal thing to do and I hope we do it," Mr. Barve said. "I think most people would want for us to just go back to what we ended up with. Some people might want changes but I hope we can resist that."

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