O'Malley Seeking Consensus On Budget

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

For much of his career, Martin O'Malley has been branded a politician in a hurry.

As mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley (D) blasted those who seemed to impede his fight against the city's stubbornly high homicide rate. Since becoming governor of Maryland in January, he has shown flashes of that same audacity, most notably in his decision this spring to swiftly -- and secretly -- shut down the notoriously violent House of Correction in Jessup.

But as O'Malley confronts what is shaping up as the make-or-break test of his leadership in Annapolis -- closing a looming $1.5 billion budget shortfall -- he has embraced a very different strategy: patience.

For O'Malley, this was a summer of public trial balloons and private meetings with legislative leaders in a bid to build consensus for a package of tax increases, spending cuts and legalization of slot-machine gambling to bring the state's $15 billion general fund into balance next year.

The deliberate approach has won praise from some leading lawmakers. But others, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), say it is starting to wear thin -- and cost the state money.

"We all know what the problem is, and we all know how to address it," said Miller, who wants a special legislative session on the budget as soon as possible.

"It's just a matter of moving forward. Summer's over. Time's a-wastin'. The bottom line is, we certainly should be further along than we are."

O'Malley reiterated his preference for a special session in a round of media interviews last week. But he also acknowledged the "difficult challenge" of finding common ground among Democratic legislative leaders with different agendas and a history of mutual mistrust.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has argued that there is no compelling reason to address the budget shortfall until January, when lawmakers are scheduled to convene for their annual 90-day session, and he is unenthusiastic about slots as part of the solution.

O'Malley said in an interview last week: "There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when I will have to step forward and offer a comprehensive solution to the people of our state, and when I do so, I want to make sure that I've done everything I possibly can to reach a consensus with leadership. I'd like full buy-in, and that's what I'm working toward, and that's what I continue to hope for."

O'Malley told reporters Friday that it will probably be clear by the end of September whether he has gotten close enough to full buy-in to justify holding a special session before the end of the year.

O'Malley aides have been sharing spreadsheets containing options for additional revenue with leading lawmakers and their staffers in recent weeks. Among the options: raising the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents; applying the sales tax to some services that are currently exempt, including health clubs and tanning salons; raising the tobacco tax by $1 a pack; broadening the state's nearly flat income tax brackets; and closing several corporate tax loopholes.

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