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April 9, 2007

Republican Fortune-telling

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Instead of a General Assembly Journal, today's column is a prediction of sorts, a look into a jaded crystal ball at the near term political future for the Republican Party. The Journal wrap-up and Sine Die review will appear here next week.

At breakfast this week, Del. Don Elliott (R., Carroll/Frederick) and I had a lengthy conversation about the future of the party and what the next year and a half holds in store.

Don was so alarmed by my predictions that he challenged me to write them down, no place better for that than right here!

First, there will probably be a Special Session to deal with the structural deficit. It would occur in the fall, either before Thanksgiving or right after Christmas. Before the Special Session, several things will happen:

With that background framed, the Special Session will consider a slots bill to place the gaming machines at four horse tracks, and possibly one or two off-track locations. That will generate almost half of the revenue needed to close the projected deficit.

The other half of the operating budget deficit would be closed by a sales tax increase. It could either be an increase in the sales tax or an expansion of the tax to cover professional services, but probably not both.

There are a number of major policy initiatives being buried by the Senate during this current session, mostly because President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller wants to see the deficit addressed before new initiatives are added to the mix.

The healthcare access bill is a great example. The House overwhelmingly passed a major expansion of health insurance, a bill that would have added over 100,000 people to the ranks of the insured. The Senate is letting the bill languish because of President Miller's concerns over revenue.

The governor's office will apply pressure to pass his bill, a minor policy adjustment that really does almost nothing to expand access to care. You can anticipate a celebration if they can move this bill, even though it doesn't accomplish anything of substance. It is, however, a victory, even only if it is a "nothing" bill.

Expect the cigarette tax to reappear, probably tied to a major health policy initiative but also a part of the major revenue "enhancement" package. The legislative leaders are going to want Republicans to either go on record supporting tax increases or to blame them for choosing drastic cuts in popular social programs.

In the same special session, a gas tax increase is also highly probably. The tax will be accompanied by a list of major highway projects by legislative district, so delegates and senators who vote against the gas tax hike will be accused of trying to kill popular local projects.

This one isn't so hard to predict. Transportation Secretary John Porcari is a veteran of the Glendening Administration, and this was a common practice back then. The Ehrlich Administration used a different tactic; they just didn't invite legislators to attend ribbon cuttings and ground-breaking events. The only caveat might be the retail price of gasoline. If the pump price is $3 per gallon, it seems very unlikely to pass, but stranger things have happened.

So, the tax increase, gas tax, and slots bill will pass during a Special Session, setting the stage for the 2008 session. Governor O'Malley will propose a balanced FY 09 budget with modest expansions in some programs, probably those he highlighted in his inaugural address in January.

He and his administration will claim success at managing resources (remember those StateStat reductions), but will make an impassioned plea for how the additional revenue will preserve public education, college tuition, public health, and environmental protection.

Looking back, Governor O'Malley has been groomed and positioned for something much more than governor of Maryland. Not that the office of governor is anything to sneer at; but the Time Magazine article mentioning him as one the best "big city" mayors, his role as the photogenic front man for his Irish rock band, his primetime speaking role at the last Democratic National Convention, and his national position in the U.S. Conference of Mayor's, serving as their spokesman for Homeland Security issues, all seem geared toward positioning him for national office.

If he can steer the General Assembly into carrying the bulk of the weight on a major tax package along with slot machines, if he can take credit for eliminating the structural deficit during a Special Session, and if he can expand a number of very popular social programs, he will further enhance his national image.

He will also accomplish another important electoral feat. He'll allow the House and Senate to bear the brunt of voter anger over both the sales and gas tax increases. They'll all count on the natural lapse of voter memory between a 2007 Special Session and the general election in 2010.

In my fantasy (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) scenario, Governor O'Malley could either be re-elected, elected U.S. Senator (in the event of the retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski), or even selected to run as a vice president on a national ticket.

A southern Democrat presidential candidate might well be enhanced by running with a northern governor with a reputation for success as a large urban mayor!

The one silver lining might be that Republicans will likely make gains in both the House and Senate, if my predictions about tax increases come true. I think the Democrats may well underestimate the negative energy voters can channel towards the party they feel is responsible for increasing their tax burden.

My prediction is that all of this negative energy won't be directed towards Governor O'Malley, but instead will be focused on the legislative majority.

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