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State lawmakers anticipate short special session to fix budget

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com

11:12 AM EDT, May 9, 2012

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The General Assembly adjourned without passing legislation that would have raised revenues needed to balance the budget April 9.

Instead of looking back to that day, some Democratic state legislators are looking forward to the special session scheduled for May 14, hoping they can go to Annapolis and quickly complete the work left unfinished before the legislature's regular 90-day session ended.

"I wish we could have worked it out during the closing days of the regular session, and then it wouldn't have been necessary," said District 13 Sen. Jim Robey, a Democrat who represents North Laurel.

However, he added, "It's essential that we go back and fix what we should have done during the 90 days."

In the waning hours of the 2012 session, agreements on a plan to shift teacher pension costs to the counties, phased in over four years; and to raise income taxes on six-figure earners were agreed to by conference committees of Senate and House leaders, but never voted on by the full chambers.

"I'm very confident (they) would have passed had (they) come to a vote," said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a District 21 Democrat who represents Laurel.

As to why that vote never happened, Rosapepe said: "Obviously there was serious dispute and maybe miscommunication between the Senate president and the speaker of the House."

The failure to pass the revenue packages triggered the so-called "doomsday" budget, which would take effect July 1 and cut $500 million to largely Democratic-favored funding priorities, such as education and health care.

Rosapepe said it's vital the legislature go back to Annapolis to prevent those cuts from being made.

"It's important because we need to protect our Triple-A bond rating," he said. "The other issue of particular significance to the folks in Laurel is, if we don't do it, there are going to be big budget cuts to Prince George's and Anne Arundel County schools."

Cuts to local school budgets, Rosapepe said, would likely result in bigger class sizes and teacher layoffs.

He added: "If we don't finalize the budget the expectation is that tuition will go up at least 10 percent and make college unaffordable for many."

Gov.Martin O'Malleylast week announced his decision to convene a special session, beginning May 14.

"There is too much at stake not to move forward," he said in a statement May 4. "I'm confident that we can come together with the Senate President and House Speaker to complete this most important work for the people of our State."

Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who represents North Laurel in District 13, said he expects the legislature to pass the income tax plan and teacher pension shift proposal the conference committees agreed to on the final day of the regular session.

"Going back and revisiting everything doesn't seem like it would be necessary," he said.

The income tax plan would raise rates for individuals earning $100,000 or more and couples or families earning $150,000 or more. Guzzone said, "Eighty-seven percent of Marylanders will see no changes in their taxes."

Guzzone, who served as a nonvoting member on the conference committees, was the delegate who proposed the four-year phase-in for the teacher pension shift. The shift of teacher pension costs to the counties would start at 50 percent in the first year, reach 65 percent in the second year, 85 percent in the third year and be fully phased in by the fourth.

Rosapepe, Guzzone and Robey said the special session is expected to last two or three days and will only address the two revenue plans.

Laurel's representatives, who are all Democrats, believe a special session is needed to protect the budget from the "doomsday" cuts, but state Republican leaders have said a special session is not needed.

Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a statewide, nonpartisan research organization, has also been critical of the special session.

"It's a pretty sad day in Maryland when the legislature re-convenes just to raise taxes on hard working Maryland families and businesses to support its spending habit," MBRG President Kimberly M. Burns said in a statement May 7. "I hope folks will be paying attention."