Md. General Assembly: Senate leader Miller says impasse not about gambling bill
By John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis,
More than a week after Maryland’s legislative session collapsed, there was a fresh round of recriminations Wednesday but no discernible progress toward resolving the mess left behind.
In what appeared to be a step backward, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. accused his counterparts in the House of engaging in “press stunts” and said that — contrary to many reports — his support for a controversial gambling bill had nothing to do with the impasse on the final night of the session.
“Statements to the contrary are irresponsible,” Miller (D-Calvert) said in a letter to fellow senators in which he also characterized House actions on the final day of the session as “both immature and beneath the dignity of the General Assembly.”
Lawmakers adjourned at midnight April 9 without enacting an agreed-upon tax package or a Miller-backed bill that called for a statewide referendum on allowing a full-fledged casino in Prince George’s County. The inaction on the tax package will trigger more than $500 million in cuts to education and other planned spending on July 1 if lawmakers do not address the situation in a special session.
The prospect of those cuts prompted an outcry Wednesday in Annapolis from groups whose funding has been imperiled by the dispute.
In an interview Wednesday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch did not back off an earlier claim that Miller’s “obsession” with the gaming bill was central to the session’s outcome.
“I’ll just say this: Everyone in the General Assembly, the executive and the media understands exactly what took place,” said Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “I don’t think any letter of redemption is going to change that.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has pledged to call a special session “the second we have a consensus,” has met separately in recent days with the two long-serving presiding officers — who as of Wednesday had not spoken to one another in more than a week.
Busch and Miller have said they are willing to hold a special session, but Miller is advocating a more expansive agenda that includes a gaming bill, a transportation package and possibly other legislation.
A soft deadline has emerged to force agreement. O’Malley must submit an enforceable plan for budget cuts by June 1, and that is also about when counties and local school boards will approve spending plans based on expected cuts.
“Once those things start happening and school boards start jettisoning programs that are pretty essential to the culture of a school or high school, I think the reality of these cuts will become much more real to people,” O’Malley told reporters late Tuesday.
Labor unions, college students and health-care advocates held a combined news conference Wednesday in Annapolis to draw attention to the potential impact of the cuts — dubbed the “doomsday budget.”
Kathleen Carmack, a special education teacher from Frederick, said she feared her class of 12 students would swell or be eliminated.
“We are not doing right by our most precious commodity, our students, by giving them larger class sizes and fewer resources for their education,” she said.
A librarian from Western Maryland, an Annapolis police officer, a health-care advocate, a University of Maryland student and others had similar warnings.
“I don’t know if I can afford my senior year,” said Tokunbo Okulaja, 21, a sophomore at College Park who said she was told this week that the budget breakdown has left in limbo a scholarship she has relied on for her first three years.
Republicans, who make up a small minority in both the House and Senate, argue that there is no need for a special session, noting that the state’s overall budget will still increase under the “doomsday” scenario.
In his letter, Miller acknowledged “strong support” for a gambling bill that allows voters to decide the fate of a Prince George’s casino and whether to add table games at the state’s five previously authorized slots sites.
“However, I in no way sought to involve any gaming issue in the fiscal 2013 budget debate,” Miller wrote.
Some members of Miller’s chamber have offered seemingly contrary views.
“I’m angered that the issue of gambling was allowed to obstruct the budget process,” Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) wrote in a post-session letter to constituents.
In his letter, Miller also took aim at House members for “press stunts” that he said “reached absurd levels” on the session’s final day. Miller cited an instance in which House budget negotiators sat in a room after senators had left and tweeted pictures of themselves. “Obviously the stunt was concocted to create the impression that somehow the Senate refused to meet,” Miller wrote.
Busch disputed Miller’s characterization that the incident was “immature.”
“Obviously, we were about doing the people’s work of trying to balance the budget of the state of Maryland,” he said.
Busch, however, acknowledged that the legislature as a whole looked bad last week.
“I think the general public deserved better from us,” he said. “We should have been able to resolve these issues. People don’t expect us to behave like our counterparts on the national level.”