Budget compromise near, Md. legislators say

O’Malley holds off on special session until House, Senate leaders meet

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Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday he wants to call a special session for lawmakers to raise taxes and reverse $500 million in planned budget cuts but is waiting on House and Senate leaders to meet beforehand and work out a unified plan.

During a day in which he conducted several radio and television interviews, the Democratic governor said he would call legislators back to Annapolis “a half-hour from now” but needs assurances that a special session will not include the bickering and gamesmanship that caused a revenue package to fall through Monday on the General Assembly’s last day, triggering $512 million in cuts to education, local police aid and state agency spending.

House and Senate Democrats said Thursday they are not far apart and are ready to embrace a compromise negotiators worked out Monday night but ran out of time to pass before adjournment.

“We were at a point where conference committees had met and made decisions,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway, Wicomico Democrat. “I would think that would give us a reasonable starting point, and we shouldn’t be far off.”

In a special session, legislators could move quickly to approve a plan similar to the late compromise, which would have raised income taxes and reduced the value of personal exemptions for single taxpayers earning more than $100,000 a year and couples earning more than $150,000.

It also would have started a four-year process during which the state gradually would shift half of teacher-pension costs to counties.

Still, questions remain over the scope of a potential special session and whether legislators could take on additional issues such as gambling and other revenue proposals.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has expressed a desire to use the special session to revisit expanded gambling in the state, after a proposal to legalize table games and build a new casino in Prince George’s County died in the House on the regular session’s last day.

The bill, which would have set up a 2012 referendum on the issue, passed the Senate and was championed by Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat.

It had major opposition in the House, where leaders accused Mr. Miller of intentionally stalling budget talks until the House gave its approval.

Mr. O'Malley and House members appear unwilling to take up gambling during a special session, but the Senate has not ruled it out. Supporters insist that inaction would push a referendum back to no earlier than 2014, potentially costing the state and local jurisdictions hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe, Prince George’s Democrat, said he is open to considering a gambling bill during special session but that the budget should be the assembly’s first priority.

“I don’t see anything wrong with discussing that, but I think we need to do first things first, and that’s get the budget finished,” he said. “We should come back tomorrow and finish it up.”

Mr. O'Malley expressed disappointment Thursday in the assembly’s failure to pass a revenue package and placed much of the blame on state political leaders, including himself.

Republicans - and some Democrats behind the scenes - have accused the governor of neglecting his duties and paying more attention to his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, for which he has traveled frequently and made national TV appearances.

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