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March 29, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 13

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

WARNING! Partisan commentary ahead, read at your own risk. I offer the warning this warning to my dear friends of the other political persuasion, lest my comments offend them.

I've tried to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, getting too partisan in these columns, but reading the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun last Thursday, a Republican response is both necessary and justified.

The morning papers are full of stories regarding the second reader action on the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA), which we refer to as the "BurFA". The BurFA is the bill that provides the revenue to fund the annual operating budget. If you look at it simply, the budget defines how money will be spent, and the BurFA provides the money to pay for the budget.

A little context might be useful. Last year, after his successful election, Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed his slots initiative as the mechanism to plug the budget deficit and pay almost all of the cost of the Bridge to Excellence in Public Education (Thornton).

Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and Ways and Means Chair Sheila Hixson (D., Montgomery) were pessimistic about the bill's chances last year. In fact, both were quoted, PRIOR to the bill's hearing, as being doubtful about the chance for committee approval.

I've talked before about the fact that they leaders almost always know where the votes are coming from. Political surprises are not welcomed in Annapolis, so I have no doubt that when Mr. Busch and Ms. Hixson said they didn't think the bill would pass, they knew that the proponents didn't have the votes.

Session ended last year with a budget balanced by a combination of fund transfers and substantial reductions. Staring us (and I mean all of us, not just the legislature) in the face was another major deficit.

Fast forward to a week ago today. With a slots bill having passed the Senate, the Speaker announced a historic tax package as an alternative to fund public education. The Senate slots bill was scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, so apparently the Speaker and Chairman Hixson wanted to hold a tax hearing in advance of the slots bill hearing.

We've talked here about how bills are introduced, scheduled, and heard. I've often written about day-long hearings on controversial issues in my committee. In fact, the slots bill hearing lasted until 10:15 p.m., with literally hundreds of people testifying, many in opposition.

The tax bill proposed by Speaker Busch was scheduled for a bill hearing on Monday afternoon, within two hours of the press conference that introduced the concept.

It seems to me that it would have been appropriate to hold a public hearing on one of the most significant tax increases in Maryland's history. Maybe the public would have turned out in enthusiastic support, maybe not. The fact is that no one was allowed the chance to express a point of view on the day this historic tax increase was heard in committee.

So, here we are on Thursday. I'm sitting in my seat on the floor of the House of Delegates. We heard a wide-ranging debate, with Democrats arguing that the increase in the sales tax was needed to pay for Thornton, that this was the only way to pay for it, and that "it is for the kids."

Republicans, on the other hand, countered with the references to Governor Ehrlich's slots proposal, arguing that it is unfair to vote on the largest tax increase in Maryland's history without allowing a vote on an alternative to this tax increase.

It was a great debate, with both sides deserving kudos for making their arguments without personal attack or procedural monkey business. In the end, it always comes down to those little green and red lights on the big board.

All day long, pundits and insiders have been speculating about the final vote. A lot hangs on the outcome. Would Speaker Busch be able to garner a veto override margin of victory? Would the rural Democrats lay off, or vote against party leadership, fearing the boomerang effect of a tax increase? How many Republicans would hang together with the Governor against a vote that the Governor has promised to veto?

By the time you read this, you'll know that the tax increase passed by a vote of 75-65. Nineteen Democrats, including seven in positions of leadership, abandoned their party to vote with the Republicans. Obviously, when the Speaker needs votes, he can round them up. The policy and political ramifications of this vote were way too significant to ignore, trumping even the power of the leader of the majority party.

The number 75 has major ramifications for the next two weeks. It takes 85 votes to override the Governor's expected veto. The phrase used down here to "round-up" votes is arm-breaking. Four or five sets of arms can be broken, 10 sets of arms is a big deal. I know for a fact that Speaker Busch was breaking arms to rival Tony Soprano all day long. Unfortunately for the Speaker, the Governor was doing a little arm work himself.

A few days ago, a high level advisor to the Governor suggested that if the House voted a tax package out without a veto-proof margin, he thought the Senate might reject the taxes, forcing consideration of slot machine revenue. That's where we find ourselves right now, sitting on the floor now debating the budget, temporarily funded by the largest tax increase in Maryland's history.

p.s. I voted against the tax increase. In fact, the only Frederick County legislator that didn't vote NO was Del. Galen Clagett. He excused himself under the rules due to a tax on property management companies, a major part of his business.

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