This is the time of year when Annapolis pundits ordinarily tally the winners and losers of the 90-day legislative session. But this has been no ordinary year.
The Maryland General Assembly, scheduled to adjourn tomorrow, has not passed a budget as this column goes to print and may be forced to extend the session until a deal is struck. The Senate's budget had been balanced, in part, with $15 million in slot-machine licensing fees, but the House of Delegates killed the bill authorizing slots at racetracks in its Ways and Means Committee. With a fiscal train wreck looming, it would be tempting to say this year has no winners.
Certainly, no one looked very good, even when pulling off some incremental triumphs.
First-year Speaker Michael Busch seized control of his unwieldy House, imposing strict discipline on his leadership team. He prevented even a hearing on the Senate-passed slots bill before the final week of the session. But the House budget is balanced with an array of new taxes that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vows he will veto.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. forced his will on Ehrlich's young administration during the executive appointments process and also took charge of the governor's besieged slots legislation. Miller managed to get the slots bill passed, but by a surprisingly narrow margin, and, in exchange for the acquiescence of track owners, he reduced to a mere pittance the licensing fees that they would have had to pay.
The racing industry won some battles but lost the war. Track owners and horse interests failed to reach a compromise after Ehrlich asked them to work out their differences. Then, when the Ehrlich administration produced a bill, they ranted about the rotten hand they had been dealt.
The Senate's version of the slots bill passed, but it required so little of the racetrack owners and did so little to balance the 2004 budget that the funds it would generate were inconsequential and easily expendable in a conference committee.
Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh (D) scored a Pyrrhic victory when he brought down Ehrlich's nominee for secretary of the environment, leaving in her place a conservative former industry executive as acting secretary, a position that doesn't require Senate confirmation.
Ehrlich hasn't fared any better. He certainly isn't the first governor to have a rocky start, but his supporters must be disappointed.
Prominent Democrats were nominated to plum positions as peace offerings to the Senate president, only to have Miller skewer a key Cabinet secretary in return.
And, slots aside, Ehrlich's modest legislative program is in tatters. His charter school bill was rendered unrecognizable by hostile amendments, and Project Exile, a program to federally prosecute gun criminals, is being held hostage by Frosh, the freshman chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, in exchange for additional gun control legislation.
Ehrlich often has said that his election victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a mandate for slots at racetracks, but that isn't true. Maryland voters were reluctantly willing to accept slots as an alternative to higher taxes, but they have never been particularly enthusiastic about expanding gambling. If the 2002 election was a mandate for anything, it was change. Townsend stood for the status quo, and Ehrlich represented revolution.
To Ehrlich's credit, he so far has held fast to the most basic of Republican principles through this perfect budget storm -- he has refused to consider a general tax increase, an income tax hike or even an additional penny on the sales tax.
If the General Assembly ultimately passes a budget without slots revenue, and Ehrlich holds firm against new taxes, the only balancing remedy left will be to make radical cuts.
In that case, the winners in this legislative session will be the 879,592 Maryland voters who, by default, will get the change they voted for -- a smaller, leaner state government.