Session Would Be Risky for O'Malley

Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks about legalizing slot machines to ease Maryland's budget deficit. O'Malley aides say he may call a session for November.
Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks about legalizing slot machines to ease Maryland's budget deficit. O'Malley aides say he may call a session for November. (By Brian Witte -- Associated Press)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has shown an abundance of caution during his first year in office, is now facing the biggest gamble of his governorship: whether to summon the legislature to Annapolis for a special session on his $1.7 billion deficit-reduction plan.

In public pronouncements, O'Malley and his aides have continued to say the governor will call a session by early next month to seek quick action on a complicated plan rolled out during two weeks of choreographed events last month.

But as O'Malley met privately with lawmakers last week, it became clear that he has yet to bring enough legislators on board to ensure a special session would be a success.

House leaders publicly questioned the need for such a session. Senate Republicans announced they were abandoning the governor on his proposal to legalize slot-machine gambling, a key component of O'Malley's package. And leading Democrats from Montgomery County told O'Malley privately that his proposed overhaul of the income tax would be too onerous for their upper-end constituents.

"For the governor, this is a huge roll of the dice," said Barbara A. Hoffman, an Annapolis lobbyist who chaired the Senate budget committee during her tenure in the General Assembly. "I think he has a long way to go. This has so many moving parts that there's real danger to going in without all the pieces in place. At some point, he may figure out he can't do it."

Pulling the plug on a special session would be a political setback for O'Malley. But some lawmakers interviewed last week suggested his leadership would be tarnished far more by a session that ended in a stalemate or dragged on until mid-January, when the legislature is scheduled to convene for its annual 90-day session.

"That would be a disaster," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "It would be like Bush in Iraq."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said that nothing that transpired in the past week has deterred the governor.

"His thinking hasn't changed," Abbruzzese said. "He feels we need to move forward in a special session. We're looking at early November."

O'Malley plans to continue lobbying for his plan, both publicly and privately, in the coming week. His schedule includes a luncheon for freshman lawmakers in Annapolis and a public forum in Salisbury. And aides are working on drafting bills that they say will soon be circulating among legislators.

From the governor's perspective, there are both practical and political benefits to solving the state's budget problems in a special session this fall, aides said.

To balance the budget in coming years, O'Malley is counting on increased collections from income, sales, corporate and tobacco taxes starting in January. If the legislature waits until next year to raise those taxes, O'Malley will be forced to propose more than $500 million in additional spending cuts or tax increases.

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