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April 16, 2012

Falling Short

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The General Assembly wrapped up its business at midnight April 9th...well, sort of. The state’s Constitution requires the General Assembly of Maryland to meet for 90 days, from the second Wednesday in January until the second Monday in April.


The only actual piece of legislative business that has to be completed during that time is the adoption of the state budget and confirmation of executive appointments. The rest of the bills, resolutions and business of legislature occur to either keep delegates and senators busy – or to curry favor with voters and constituents.


This year's session set new low standards for expectation for our Severn River crew. From start to finish, the 2012 session will be long remembered for what didn't happen, and for the issues that diverted attention from serious, structural issues of governance toward the purely political.


Politically, there's no excuse for a failure of the majority party to accomplish any of their objectives. They hold all of the cards, with large voting majorities in both the House and Senate and the governor's office.


Well, no excuse other than human nature, that is.


Governor Martin O'Malley asked the General Assembly for a lot this year. He pushed hard for his same-sex marriage bill. He pushed environmental bills through both chambers that create huge problems for local governments, even in areas where Democrats outnumber Republicans.


Finally, he brought forward a budget proposal heavy on tax and fee increases to get the state's fiscal house in order while protecting his favored political interests. The governor, echoing a message from President Barack Obama, lobbied for dramatic increases in the highest income tax rates for wealthy Marylanders.


The governor also proposed a significant increase in the flush tax, a gift from former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich designed to raise revenue to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.


The governor also proposed altering the historic obligation of the state to fund teacher pensions, believing that counties had an obligation to share in that undertaking. He based his assertion on the fact that counties were allowing pay increases that drive pension contributions, while state workers were being held to years of no increases.


Governor O'Malley also supported an increase in the tax on a gallon of gas. Unfortunately, national energy issues were driving the pump price up just as the session was starting, so an increase in the gas tax itself would have been too heavy a lift.


Instead, in a too-cute-by-half move, the governor suggested adding the state sales tax to gasoline, accomplishing essentially the same thing as increasing the fuel tax itself.


These guys are nothing if not creative.


It was in this context that the House and Senate convened for their 90-day excursion to our Capital City. If you used to read my General Assembly Journal columns on, you'll know how the first month of session is spent.


Instead of intense hearings over weighty matter of policy, the first month is like a big garden party, with lobbyist-hosted breakfasts, lunches, cocktail parties and dinners. Presumably, this down time allows bills to be drafted and filed.


Once February rolls around, the grind of the session really begins. An hour on the floor, followed by 5-6 hours of public bill hearings, followed by a lobbyist-funded dinner, capped off with a late night spent reading tomorrow’s bills constitutes the typical legislator's day.


Given all of this time, one has to wonder why the hardest work is left until the last few days of session.


By Monday, April 9, the last full day of the 2012 session, the state budget and revenue bill still had not passed both chambers. A number of complex issues remained unresolved, including a few totally unrelated to the spending plan.


Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker wanted a new casino for the National Harbor development project. Not just any old slots parlor, Mr. Baker was looking for a destination gaming facility. Not one to be outdone, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake thought that was a good idea and decided to ask for a referendum on expanded gaming, too.


Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (Calvert/Prince George’s), our state's most vocal gaming advocate, jumped on the expansion bandwagon. Governor O'Malley, not nearly as enthusiastic as Mr. Miller, was desperate enough for new revenue that he was open to the idea.


The obstacle is (and always was) Speaker Mike Busch (Anne Arundel). Remember the protracted battles with former Governor Ehrlich?


So, gaming became a last minute distraction, the worst possible thing at the worst possible time.


To avoid an extended session to pass a budget, Speaker Busch struck a final day agreement with President Miller. The Speaker agreed to round up votes for the gaming expansion if President Miller got the tax package through the Senate.


Here's the problem with an Annapolis deal. Once the legislators who actually have to cast votes smell blood in the water in the form of a deal, the feeding frenzy breaks out.


In this case, Baltimore City legislators started clamoring for an increase in school construction funding. Prince George’s County delegates did the same. Montgomery County delegation members, not to be outdone by the others, lined up at the Speaker's office door with their own wish lists.


This beg-a-thon in the late afternoon spelled doom for the revenue bill deal. The Speaker had to inform Senator Miller that he couldn't round up the votes. At that point, Mr. Miller applied the brakes to the tax deal, and the revenue bill slipped into legislative oblivion.


With 15 minutes to go until midnight, Speaker Busch allowed a motion from Del. Kumar Barve (D, Montgomery) to extend the session by five days. GOP delegates claimed a 2/3 vote was necessary according to House rules.


Speaker Busch, normally a defender of his own rules of procedure, allowed his parliamentarian to assert that the Constitution would allow a simple majority vote to suffice. The Speaker's move was predicated on the idea that Senator Miller would do the same thing and move for an extended session in the Senate.


Senator Miller, likely miffed over the collapse of his deal, opted instead to adjourn his body Sine Die, effectively ending all legislative business pending before the Senate, even though the revenue bill had yet to pass.


That action triggered what the legislative leaders call the "doomsday scenario," or cuts to take effect July 1 to balance the spending plan. This hyperbolic description seems a little silly, since even with the cuts, state spending will still increase by $300-400 million over last year.


Up next will be a special session, possibly before these mandated reductions take over. However it happens, rest assured that those legislators who were lining up to "sell" their votes won't forget that on the final day of session, there was a negotiation over the value of that vote.


I doubt that those votes will lose value!


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