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October 8, 2007

The View from the Capitol

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Things are quite unsettled in old Annapolis town. The summer has ended; the Naval Academy is back in full academic swing, and the Main Street tourist shops shift from appealing to warm weather out-of-towners to the sweater and jacket crowd.

I don't envy the pundits and political reporters who are racing to keep up with the statements and positions of the legislative leaders and Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Things are changing faster in Annapolis than the costumes in a big Bob Fosse Broadway show, so fast you almost need a program to keep up. Governor O'Malley's handlers designed a magical mystery tour, a high-mileage trip to various jurisdictions to roll out the details of his slots (modest), taxes (massive), and cuts (meager) plan.

The governor has a tough sell ahead. He needs revenue, BIG revenue. The deficit is sitting at $1.7 billion, but the governor needs far more to add the programs he'll need in order to corral the necessary votes to raise taxes.

By my estimate, he'll need about $2.3 billion to fulfill the promises and commitments he'll have to make to get the votes for sales tax, income tax, and gas tax increases. To get someone to swallow poison, you have to coat it with a lot of sugar.

So, Governor O'Malley embarked on his charm offensive, kibitzing in a dining room, standing in a horse pen, and sitting on the dock of the Bay (okay, that last one was a little over the top).

The specifics you've already heard, or at least you've heard as much as he's willing to tell you. The real gory details have only been shared with elected state Democrats; he can't afford to have the Republicans as well-informed, since presumably we can't criticize what we don't understand.

Of course, this isn't rocket science. An elementary school student with a rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic could figure out this puzzle. You have no money in your savings account (the rainy day fund), you expect to take in nearly three-quarters of a billion less than you plan to spend, and you made promises to everyone that you wouldn't cut their program. Guess that means you have to increase the amount you take in!

So, Governor O'Malley pinned his hopes on a complex, multi-tiered strategy. He needs the liberal Democrats to support his tax increases; he needs retail businesses to embrace his sales tax by limiting how many businesses it affects; he needs everyone to support heavier tax burdens on wealthier people; and he needs Republicans to support his slots plan.

Everything seemed to be going along smoothly. House Speaker Mike Busch (Anne Arundel), who surprised everyone by maintaining his objection to slots as a general revenue source, lowered his rhetoric and went so far as to suggest that he would "let" the majority vote their conscience. What else were they going to do?

Senate President Mike Miller (Calvert-PG), not a big fan of the other tax increases, saw this as his avenue to slot machines. He tried to get them passed throughout the Ehrlich Administration, to no avail. He seems willing to encourage poison consumption by his members, and Governor O'Malley has been working with leadership to get enough Democrats to line up with the Republicans to support a slots initiative.

In previous articles, I described a GOP House Caucus plan to reduce the rate of spending and hold an auction for slots parlor licenses, the combination of the two would eliminate the deficit without a single broad-based tax increase.

What we didn't know was the plan of the Senate Republicans, led by Frederick (and Carroll) County's own, David Brinkley. Senator Brinkley removed the mystery this past week with a single press release.

In a stroke of political genius, the Senate GOP Caucus checkmated our governor and the president of the Senate. Senator Brinkley announced that NO Republican Senator would vote for a slots initiative during a Special Session, suggesting that ramming such important policy matters through in the compression of a Special Session would deprive Maryland citizens of their right to express themselves.

You see, the whole O'Malley plan was predicated on a favorable GOP vote on slots. Governor O'Malley and President Miller both assumed that the senators, who supported slots during the 4-year Ehrlich term, would naturally do so now.

Mike Miller was so mad the steam may have blown a hole in his historic first floor corner office. He must have shared his political calculation with Governor O'Malley, otherwise I doubt the governor would have gone as far in public statements as he did.

The governor desperately needs to raise that revenue now. He wants the taxes in place before January, and a Special Session is the only way he can do that.

So, now we have Speaker Busch on one side, confident that liberal Democrats won't support slots, and the Senate Republicans on the other, indicating that nothing will cause them to break ranks. That school kid can once again do the math; there are just not enough votes to pass the O'Malley budget solution.

Someone will have to blink in order for a Special Session to occur before it's too late to raise the revenue Governor O'Malley needs to close the deficit. At this point, no one appears ready to blink.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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