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October 26, 2007

Doomed Special Session?

Roy Meachum

From here, the omens are not good for the governor's special session that opens Monday. Martin O'Malley hoped calling the legislature in would lead to answers for Maryland's staggering deficits. I don't think it's going to happen.

While slots are the big rallying cry, as they were for Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, increasing the sales tax lurks as the snake in the grass, especially while corporations and the state's wealthiest enjoy what is virtually a free ride.

Demanding Marylanders pay another penny on every dollar spent scarcely makes political sense while corporations face a seven percent bite. In too many instances they wind up forking over very little.

New Comptroller Peter Franchot has launched a crusade for big Maryland outfits to stop shortchanging the state treasury. Among other matters, he wants corporations to haul their off-shore billions on-shore. He eyes with favor adding to the amount they must yield to taxpayers.

That's all good stuff. But the real keys to Mr. O'Malley raking in his proposed $2 billion are in slots and raising the general sales tax, which will take money from the pockets of every Marylander, Republican and Democrat, man, woman and child - with no exceptions.

That's not quite true. Handing over six instead of five percent on their shopping dollar hits hardest those who live from paycheck to paycheck. Those fortunate enough to afford savings accounts, etc., will not pay the higher rate: they don't spend the money.

As readers know, I feel the same way about slots. Unlike the passive lotteries that simply wait for players to come along, the machines fascinate; they fix themselves to players. A quick visit to nearby West Virginia demonstrates in spades what I mean.

With their public records loud and clear, House Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and Comptroller Peter Franchot pose a formidable opposition; they are not alone. I can't imagine why the governor and all his crew have such confidence the abbreviated session will permit them to overcome the pair's principled objections.

During the recent Republican administration, an Ehrlich aide took pains to describe Mr. Busch's position on slots as nothing more than severe partisanship. The argument, instead, caused me to consider how Mr. Ehrlich and all his aides heavily played the partisanship card.

By the way, since everyone saw the huge budget deficit coming, long before the last gubernatorial election, why is not the present financial crisis labeled for what it is: An abject abandonment of responsibility by both Republicans and Democrats?

Although it is possible to suspect darker motives, I support entirely the General Assembly's GOP leadership for fighting this special session. I've noted the Democratic governor's reasoning: this way the legislators will be able to concentrate solely on the budget. And I'm sympathetic, to a degree.

The point is reached at the very notion everything can be tidied up in a few days next week or the week after. I suspect one of Mr. O'Malley's men (women are too smart) has bought into the last administration's reasoning: Mr. Ehrlich's efforts, aided mightily by Senate President Mike Miller (D., PG-Calvert), still fell apart under partisanship.

Since Democrats way outnumber Maryland Republicans, certainly Martin O'Malley can get the General Assembly to jig to his Irish tune. Or can he?

Mr. Governor, don't make book on it.

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