Unity Is Urged as Assembly Convenes

Paul Hnarakis of Gaithersburg, holding sign, was part of a gathering of about 250 protesters near the State House. (Photo: Nikki Kahn/Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley urged lawmakers to "move beyond conflict to find consensus" as they convened last night for a high-stakes special session on Maryland's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

Appearing before a joint session of the General Assembly, O'Malley (D) made a somber case for his proposals to close the gap through tax increases and revenue from the legalization of slot-machine gambling, an issue so divisive that he is asking lawmakers to let voters resolve it in a referendum next year.

"We now face one of the toughest fiscal challenges in our state's 373-year history," O'Malley said during an address in which he appealed for civil discourse in the days ahead. "The storm is upon us, and this looming shortfall threatens to do grave damage to the very quality of life that our neighbors have elected us to defend. . . . Further delay will only compound the difficulty of correcting the half-actions and inactions of our recent past."

The session, which legislators expect to last at least two weeks, is extraordinary for its scope and its potential consequences. Special sessions are typically convened for quick action on a single issue; O'Malley is pushing the largest overhaul of Maryland's tax code in four decades.

He has proposed raising the sales tax, the corporate income tax, the tobacco tax, the titling tax on vehicles and income taxes on upper-end earners. The governor is also seeking a modest income tax cut for most other people, as well as a reduction in the state property tax rate.

O'Malley has also asked lawmakers to pass a health-care plan and to set aside nearly $400 million a year in extra money for transportation priorities, in addition to approving his proposal to hold a referendum legalizing slot-machine gambling at five locations.

"This is the most comprehensive special session that's taken place in Maryland in at least a century," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who was among those who had suggested waiting to address the budget until the legislature's regular session in January. "I think we're going about this in as judicious a fashion as possible, given the circumstances."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) credited O'Malley with being "very bold" in calling a session with an uncertain fate.

"The task is . . . bringing the divergent interests of the Democratic Party together to pass these plans," Miller said. "It's going to be very difficult. It's going to be very trying. . . . It's a daunting task, but I think he's up to it."

Republicans, who are in the distinct minority in the House and Senate, were far less charitable in their assessments of O'Malley's chances for success and his remarks.

"There obviously is no enthusiasm for raising taxes," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick). "He's taking a tremendous gamble."

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) dismissed O'Malley's speech as containing "some platitudes, but no real substance."

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