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As Long as We Remember...

December 29, 2008

General Assembly Journal 2009 Volume 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

In a nod to my Navy submarine background, a common countdown tool was the number of days and a wake-up call until some significant milestone.


Using that measure, it’s a mere 17 days until the start of the 2009 General Assembly session. January 14th, the second Wednesday in January, at noon, the House of Delegates and state Senate will be gaveled into session for the 426th Session.


In addition to the normal pomp and ceremony, a sense of dread awaits the 188 members of the General Assembly. In today’s body politic, power springs from money. Without money, campaign promises are unfulfilled. Without money, special interests go unsatisfied. Without money, elected representatives can’t bring home the bacon.


Lobbyists, who had previously been paid huge sums to obtain a larger share of the pie, will now be fighting for many of their client’s lives, and by extension, the lives of people served by their clients.


Issues easy to support when the money tap is flowing freely (with your money, of course) will no longer be as popular.


The real myth behind the money = power formula has always been that all of the money comes from the same place, namely your wallet. You were never really getting anything you didn’t pay for; it’s just always seemed like somebody else has gotten your share!


The projected budget deficit is essentially the same amount as it was prior for last year’s Special Session, the one with all of the tax increases designed to close the budget gap. Bad plan, worse result!


Gov. Martin O’Malley has cut over $3 billion from the state operating budget. People costs constitute the lion’s share of that same budget, and more than half of the total operating budget is consumed with two mandated spending items: Medicaid and public education.


This year, those two programs will be “opened” for examination. That means the two largest and most crucial state funding obligations may see a shift, something unheard of in prior years.


States all over the nation are scaling back on these mandated programs, especially medical assistance. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced a major reduction in medical assistance physician compensation rules, and thousands are being dropped from state-funded insurance coverage.


Legislators are receiving a lot of mail right now, and most of it, including the occasional Christmas card, contains a request to not cut crucial programs. Most of this mail makes the case for one program over others. From the looks of the scope of the shortfall, no program or service seems likely to escape the budget knife.


State workers have been furloughed, and – depending on where they fall on the salary scale – that furlough will last between two and five days. Legislators, not wanting to seem out-of-touch, recently rushed to the media to offer to give back salary to “share” the pain of their fellow state workers.


Feels and sounds like a cheap stunt, but we politicians are experts at designing and carrying out cheap stunts.


Republican legislators will undoubtedly engage in some vigorous “I told you so” regarding last year’s O’Malley budget. The script will read something like this: The O’Malley Administration recklessly and wantonly continued spend and tax practices of past administrations, and the House and Senate majorities supported this irresponsible course of action.”


Believe me, that will closely mirror the talking points, and I don’t even get them sent to me anymore!


A good portion of what the GOP will claim will be true. In light of recent economic trends and data, it was wrong to increase spending and create new programs. Had our crystal ball been working, we all could have seen this coming.


If the Republicans in the House and Senate go a little too far and claim that their solution would have completely avoided the problem we now face, well that’s just playing fast and loose with the truth. The GOP plan also depended on increasing state tax receivables and a strong real estate market to fill the coffers with money. That’s just not happening.


The Republicans were also counting on a competition between private investors and entrepreneurs to bid for video lottery licenses as a way to jumpstart the gaming expansion. Successful bidders would pay a license fee up front, but would receive a bigger share of the gaming proceeds. In retrospect, that does seem like a better plan than the current approach.


As it stands now, the state will likely have to reduce the amount of slots revenue invested in the Education Trust Fund just to get vendors interested in building the gaming venues.


That in itself will feel like a betrayal of a promise, especially to those who voted for slots because of the education funding promise. Many will harken back to the lottery, and remember (albeit inaccurately) that unfulfilled promise.


For slots to produce revenue, someone has to build the parlor. With a poor return on that initial investment, no smart businessman will enter the game. Count on a modification to the bill that created the Education Trust Fund, and expect the General Assembly to reduce the amount set aside for education in order to add to the venue’s take.


On that score, the GOP can claim that they had it right and the Democratic majority blew it!


This is normally the session for building a political base in advance of an election year. Instead, it looks as if this will be the year of promises not kept, of the broken sacred trust, and of unmet expectations.


Come to think of it, the 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly might be better off not taking that wake up call on January 14th!


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

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