Maryland legislature likely to return, officials speculate

Following the eye-popping collapse Monday night of a package of tax increases, the talk in Annapolis on Tuesday was that the Maryland General Assembly would probably be forced to come back in a few weeks to try to finish the job.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) chided lawmakers Tuesday, saying it was “a damn shame” that cuts to education would be among more than $500 million in funding reductions triggered by their inaction in the final hours of the 90-day session.

“Our leaders weren’t able to come to the consensus necessary to protect education,” an agitated O’Malley said at a previously scheduled bill-signing ceremony in Annapolis, where the legislature’s two presiding officers sat stone-faced on either side of him.

He made no mention of plans to call a special session, a move that would be necessary to enact a proposed tax increase on high earners and a series of other revenue plans that died at midnight Monday.

But leading lawmakers predicted that the governor would summon the General Assembly back once the impact of the forced spending cuts had time to sink in and he and legislators could reach an informal agreement on what to pass.

“This is a minor bump in the road,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “We’ll deal with it in a one- or two-day session, and everything will be fine.”

Not reaching an agreement by July 1 would probably result in the elimination of about 500 state jobs, cuts to local police aid and higher tuition at public universities, among other steps.

What else might be taken up in a special session is not clear. Miller (D-Calvert) said he is hopeful that a gambling bill would be part of the mix, along with a tax increase for transportation projects.

A late-moving gambling bill, which could have allowed a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County, became entangled in budget negotiations in the session’s final days — but was not a priority for O’Malley or House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

Busch said that rounding up votes for proposed tax increases to offset the cuts could be more difficult than during the regular session, when the agenda was far broader. “It’s going to be a bigger lift when you’re coming back to town and everyone says you’re there to raise taxes,” he said.

State budget analysts were still working to unravel the full effect of the legislature’s having passed only two of the four interconnected bills that made up Maryland’s spending package. In all, it appeared general-fund spending would have to decrease by about 1 percent over the current fiscal year, to about $14.8 billion, though some parts of the budget would be reduced far more.

The budget as passed Monday would cut 10 percent, or more than $60 million, from higher education, probably necessitating tuition increases at state universities and community colleges.

Funding for grade-school students would be reduced by $44 a pupil. Grants to cover the higher cost of education in the suburbs of the District and in and around Baltimore would be cut, accounting for nearly $129 million.

Republicans have perennially pushed to reduce funding for the state’s increasingly complex and growing grant programs.

On Tuesday, they said there was no reason for a special session to raise taxes. Rather, they said, the collapse had pushed the state closer to the austere budget it should have adopted earlier in the economic downturn.

Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Maryland, disagreed fiercely.

The triggered cuts included an 8 percent across-the-board reduction to all state agency budgets and loss of a 2 percent pay increase for state employees.

“The breaking point is upon us, and this will only push us further in that direction,” Moran said.

Also lost entirely were hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary spending and grant funding that counties have come to expect to help balance their budgets. Under a series of formulas used to divvy up those grants, Prince George’s would lose the most, about $65 million for classrooms, libraries and police in the spending year that begins in July.

That would increase the county’s projected shortfall by about 50 percent. Montgomery County wouldn’t fare much better. It would lose more than $41 million, exacerbating its budget gap by a similarly large margin.

Without the full budget deal, a plan to shift half of growing teacher pension costs to counties — long a third rail in Maryland politics — also was scrapped late Monday. That, along with the tax increases, had been expected to cover nearly half the state’s projected shortfall of $1 billion annually for the remainder of the decade.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said he spent much of Tuesday sorting through budget options for the county if the legislature’s cuts were to take effect. He also said that he remains optimistic that a gambling bill will be resurrected in a special session. He spent weeks lobbying for legislation that would let voters decide whether to allow a “high-end” casino at National Harbor and table games at all Maryland gambling venues.

The legislature’s two presiding officers offered differing accounts Tuesday on the interplay between the gaming bill and budget negotiations Monday.

Miller said a bill had been part of a handshake agreement reached with Busch and blamed the session’s un­or­tho­dox ending on how late that understanding was reached. “Things happen,” Miller said. “It’s not the fault of any one person.”

Busch, who complained Monday that Senate leaders had a “gaming obsession,” said Tuesday that he and Miller never reached a deal on the issue.

Busch said that he merely pledged to make a “good faith” effort to pass a bill and that by Monday night, he wasn’t sure whether there would be enough votes to do that. “That bill could have gone either way,” he said.

Staff writer Miranda Spivack contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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