- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Political battling between the Democratic leaders of the Maryland House and Senate has stopped meetings for one of the state’s most powerful — and secretive — committees.

The invitation-only Fiscal Leaders Committee has for roughly 30 years been the forum for the Democrat-controlled General Assembly’s House speaker and Senate president to set the course for the state budget. But recent disagreements have kept the lawmakers and their top budget leaders from meeting so far this session.

“It’s not because of the House of Delegates,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said yesterday.

The major disagreements have been whether to include Republicans, who have been excluded for four years, and how to address Maryland’s $4 billion structural deficit, said State House staffers who requested anonymity.

The group typically meets every Wednesday morning during the 90-day session to exchange budget information in private, the staffers said.

Maryland’s open-meeting laws allow the sessions to be closed to the public, said Robert A. Zarnoch, assistant attorney general and counsel to the General Assembly.

“I’ve always thought it was one of the most important groups in Annapolis,” said J. William Pitcher, a veteran State House lobbyist. “It really is the linchpin.”

Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, said members “make the major decisions related to money [and] everything else pales in comparison.”

However, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, has downplayed the importance of the committee and has said meetings are not needed because the budget is balanced this year.

“There hasn’t been one major fiscal decision made in the Fiscal Leaders Committee,” he said.

Still, passing the budget is usually considered the most important assignment for lawmakers during the Assembly session. The task requires constant negotiations between the leaders of the House and Senate, and the meetings are an ideal venue to negotiate privately to avoid public squabbles.

“You’ve got this flurry of activity, but obviously there’s this dysfunction in that the fiscal leaders have not met,” a former member of the House of Delegates said, with less than a month remaining in the session and no budget agreement.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch do not openly disagree about Republicans attending the meetings or on how to resolve the state’s budget problems, but they have taken opposite approaches.

Mr. Busch supports a $1 increase on the cigarette tax this year but has sided with Gov. Martin 0’Malley, a Democrat, in his desire not to increase taxes or introduce slot-machine legislation during his first term to solve the budget problems.

Mr. Miller has pushed Mr. O’Malley to address the issue now and has proposed increasing the state tax on gasoline by 12 cents a gallon and putting 15,500 slot machines across Maryland to fill state coffers. He also proposed holding a special session after the Assembly session ends in mid-April to address the slots issue.

Mr. Busch opposes including Republicans on the committee, which has roughly eight of the Assembly’s 188 lawmakers, while Mr. Miller has vowed to include Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican.

“Senator Brinkley will be in the room for the next meeting,” he said yesterday.

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