State Lawmakers Eye Special Session To Resolve Budget

BERLIN — When state lawmakers return to Annapolis next week for a special session called by Governor Martin O’Malley, their primary objective will be to pick up the budget debate left on the table when the regular session expired last month, but despite the saber rattling and gnashing of teeth, it appears a deal has already been reached.

When the 2012 session expired on April 9, the governor’s tax increase package and budget reconciliation plan died on the table with no agreement reached. The failed budget talks at the 11th hour triggered the so-called “doomsday budget,” that includes straight cuts totaling over $500 million to many services and programs including education and public safety.

However, the state’s Democratic leadership, including O’Malley, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, Jr., and House Speaker Michael Busch, unsatisfied with the de facto budget set in motion when the session expired, pushed for a special session to bring back for debate their preferred budget that includes a somewhat aggressive tax increase package to offset many of the cuts in the “doomsday” budget.

O’Malley said state lawmakers have a responsibility to act on the budget left on the table as the session expired and not accept the default spending plan.

“There’s too much at stake not to move forward,” he said. “Progress is a choice that we must make now to protect our priorities of job creation, education, public safety and our bay and environment. All of this progress is threatened if we don’t act. That’s why we’ve called this session and that’s why together we are making the choice to move forward with a balanced approach of cuts, revenues and investment.”

Busch said this week the Senate and House had an obligation to the taxpayers in Maryland to revisit the failed budget discussions during the regular session.

“Each year, our citizens expect us to make the tough decisions necessary to balance the state’s budget, preserve our shared priorities and maintain our reputation as a financially well managed state,” said Busch. “We do not and should not ever abdicate this responsibility and govern by default.”

Miller said all of the good work accomplished by lawmakers during the 2012 session would be for naught if the legislature could not agree on a balanced budget.

“We made significant progress in many areas of importance to our citizens this session,” said Miller. “The lack of consensus on how to move forward on the budget was unfortunate and these measures will ensure our current year budget is balanced.”

Miller said the proposed plan includes an income tax increase for Maryland’s higher wage earners along with other tax proposals. He said the proposed plan would offset the estimated $500 million in cuts while working toward reducing the structural deficit.

“The Senate hoped to resolve more of the significant and ongoing deficit, but the members of the Senate are committed to coming back to Annapolis to avoid these cuts to education, healthcare and public safety,” he said. “We are hopeful that we can come to consensus in the future to resolve the remaining $500 million deficit and maintain our shared priorities in the future.”

However, according to Maryland Republicans, the “consensus” Miller is hoping to reach has already been resolved in advance of Monday’s special session.

“The Democratic leadership said they’ve already reached a compromise to plunder and pillage the peoples’ paychecks,” said Maryland GOP Executive Director David Ferguson this week. “Next week, they’ll come to Annapolis to tell Marylanders just how much more they’ll steal. It’s too bad the hardworking taxpayers didn’t have a seat at their table.”

Ferguson said the proposed deal on the table illustrates the rift between the two parties.

“This special session is a great opportunity for Marylanders to see the difference between Democratic mismanagement and Republican leadership,” he said. “It is a shame the Democrats won’t consider the Republicans’ alternative budget solution introduced this session. It doesn’t raise taxes, swell spending or shift teacher pensions to local governments.”

Senator Jim Mathias, a Democrat who represents the Lower Shore, said the special session will likely focus only on the unresolved budget.

“It appears to me the agenda is going to deal strictly with budget issues,” he said. “How I vote remains to be seen. I know it’s a tough economy, but I also understand there are services people expect.”

While it appears O’Malley, Miller and Busch have lined up the votes necessary to get their spending plan approved, Mathias said he has not committed to anything yet.

“I’m going in with an open mind,” he said. “What I attempt to do is bring a thorough, rational approach to the process. There was a lot of blame laid at the feet of a lot of people. I’m certain they’re not going to commit to a special session without the reasonable expectation of a positive outcome for the taxpayers of Maryland.”