Many Bills, and Scant Time to Study Them

By Philip Rucker and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lawmakers converging on Annapolis this week for a special session face a daunting task.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is asking them to approve a referendum on slot machine gambling, increase the sales tax and revamp income taxes, all in a matter of weeks, if not days.

And the legislation to accomplish all that was not made public until Friday, leaving lawmakers little time to absorb the details.

"My real concern is not only will we hastily pass or defeat bills, but the consequences of what we do are going to reverberate for years to come," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery).

For weeks, O'Malley and his aides have met privately with lawmakers about his proposals to close a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, but Republicans said they learned of his initiatives only through news releases and the media.

"He hasn't told us anything about it," House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) said Friday afternoon. "People have started to call him Governor O'Press Release."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the release of the governor's bill proposals Friday night, plus the week of committee hearings ahead, should give legislators enough time to study the issues before casting votes.

Some lawmakers said their offices have been deluged with calls and letters from constituents voicing opinions on O'Malley's proposals.

Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) said opposition to slots among congregants at her church, First Baptist Church of Glenarden, is so strong that "I think I'd have to find another church home if I voted for slots."

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who was a delegate before being elected to the Senate last year, said: "It is absolutely the biggest issue that I've ever had to face. Absolutely. There's not even a close second."

Each chamber went into session shortly after 8 p.m. yesterday, followed by a joint session in which the governor addressed the full legislature. Afterward, lawmakers who are not on committees dealing with fiscal issues were to be sent home temporarily.

Members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Ways and Means and Appropriations committees will hold joint hearings today through Friday on all aspects of the governor's proposal, including an increase in the tobacco tax.

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