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Gov. Martin O’Malley, legislative leaders ponder unfinished business in Maryland

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Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley took to the airwaves Thursday to make clear that he is willing to call lawmakers back to Annapolis if a deal can be reached on the issues that led to the collapse Monday night of a tax package.

“I’m willing to call the legislature back in a half-hour from now,” O’Malley (D) said during a morning television appearance, the first of three interviews Thursday in the Washington media market. “We can do it as soon as we have a consensus.”

But off the air, there was no apparent movement in that direction.

In interviews Thursday afternoon, both of the legislature’s presiding officers said they had not spoken to O’Malley or to each other since the three Democrats were in a room together Tuesday at an awkward post-session bill-signing ceremony.

“We’re hearing the governor through the radio and TV, but we haven’t gotten a call or a letter yet,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert). “We’re anxious to hear from him.”

Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) restated their willingness to hold a special session to avert more than $500 million in cuts to education and other programs scheduled to take effect July 1 because of the legislature’s inaction.

But Busch said: “The governor’s got to be the lead in this. He can’t sit back and say, ‘This is what I hope the legislature does.’ ”

The rehashing of Monday night’s debacle has overshadowed the congratulatory talk that typically follows Maryland’s 90-day legislative session.

On Thursday, O’Malley sought to work in mentions of several of his accomplishments, including a same-sex marriage bill and some pro-environmental initiatives. But such issues were hardly the focus of the interviews.

The back-and-forth also underscored how little consensus exists about what issues should be considered during a special session — as well as the sore feelings among the three leaders.

Besides tax legislation, Miller said, a gambling bill and several other measures — all of which were close to passage when the session ended Monday — should be back on the table.

Busch suggested much the opposite. He said that even a tax bill will be a challenge to pass, given that there is no “constitutional requirement” to do so now.

If legislators take no action, a negotiated tax increase on high-income earners will not take effect, and cuts to elementary, secondary and higher education, as well as a range of state agencies, will.

The public, Busch said, is “outraged that we didn’t come to a conclusion, so the idea of coming in for an extended period is going to cause an outcry.”

The extent to which the gambling bill undermined budget negotiations also remained in dispute Thursday.

O’Malley and Busch blamed Miller for holding up passage of tax legislation to gain leverage for a bill that called for a referendum on allowing a casino in Prince George’s County.

Miller said passage of that bill was part of a larger agreement in the session’s remaining hours, a contention that Busch dismissed.

O’Malley also blamed the late-session focus on gambling for a lack of attention paid to one of his priorities: a plan to raise taxes for additional transportation projects.

Asked whether that issue should be part of a special session, the governor said on WTOP radio, “I don’t know.”

O’Malley’s refrain Thursday was that he was ready and willing to call lawmakers back to Annapolis as soon as their leaders agree on how to move forward. Each time O’Malley spoke, however, it was clearer that was not happening.

His pledge to summon lawmakers “a half-hour from now” came during an appearance shortly after 7:30 a.m. on WTTG-TV (Channel 5), the Fox affiliate in Washington.

By lunchtime, on WAMU radio, O’Malley said: “I’d be glad to call a special session this afternoon.”

Each time he was interviewed, O’Malley was asked how much blame he should shoulder. He acknowledged some responsibility but suggested that it would be up to legislative leaders to make a breakthrough.

“What we have to do first is call one another,” O’Malley said on WAMU. “The speaker and the Senate president need to talk with one another, they need to talk with their members, and we need to get together.”

O’Malley said it was clear the gambling bill and tax package had become intertwined, and he said one should not have torpedoed the other.

“I don’t believe that whether we have five [casino] sites in Maryland or six sites in Maryland is worth bringing down the entire state budget,” O’Malley said.

He said it is up to Miller and Busch to figure out what happened with the gambling bill.

“Whether that was a true consensus or one that was agreed to with fingers crossed behind backs, I’m trying to sort out right now,” O’Malley said. “And I think it’s a question that the speaker and the president need to ask one another.”

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