SpeakerMichael E. Buschand key members of his House Democratic leadership team met with Gov.Martin O'MalleyThursday morning, and Busch reported that additional progress had been made toward laying the groundwork for a special session to raise taxes and avert more than $500 million in cuts in the so-called Doomsday Budget adopted by the General Assembly in the recent regular session.
However, Busch has not yet agreed to the target date of May 14 set by both O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He said the governor will meet with a broader group of House leaders later Thursday. The speaker said he has asked House leaders to reserve the week of May 14-18 for a special session though he believes an agreement can be wrapped up in less time than that.
"We're feeling close," Busch said after the 1 1/2-hour meeting with the governor at Government House and an informal, roughly 20-minute caucus of House leaders on the sidewalk outside the mansion.
Busch said there continues to be a strong consensus in the House that in crafting a final revenue and budget package, legislators should work off the conference committee agreement reached the final night of the session April 9. He said the House was open to minor changes but no material revamping of the income tax increase agreed to that night.
"I don't think there's any significant changes in the revenues," he said.
The speaker said he doesn't know of any scheduled meetings between House and Senate budget negotiatiors, but he said such conferences are possible through next week. Miller said Wednesday that he had asked the Senate's budget chief, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard, to arrange a meeting with his House counterparts.
After the regular session, which ended before both chambers could approve the income tax bill and another measure shifting some teacher pension costs to the counties, some senators expressed dissatisfaction with the deal their negotiators had agreed to -- charging that House negotiators has been intransigent. But Busch all but closed the door to reopening the agreements.
Busch said in an interview that the House needs more information before it could take up the issue of expanded casino gambling -- an issue Miller is eager to addresss in time to get it onto the November ballot. Miller has backed a plan to add a sixth casino, to be located at National Harbor inPrince George's County, and to allow table games at all current and planned slots venues.
The speaker said he expects O'Malley to soon issue an executive order creating a commission to studying the fundamental economic issues behind gambling expansion -- including the proper level of taxation and the competitive effects of table games and a new casino on sites in Baltimore and at Arundel Mills -- and to report back to the General Assembly. He said the order would likely call for an 11-member commission with five members appointed by the governor and three by each of the presiding officers.
Busch said he hoped the panel could report back by late June or early July. He said that if that report can form the basis of an accord between the House and Senate on how to move forward, he would be open to the idea of a special session this summer. But without such an agreement, he said, there would be no point to calling legislators back to Annapolis yet again.
"You have to have a consensus and you have to see what ther numbers say," Busch said. "The big issue is what is the appropriate [tax] rate.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said she could not confirm that an aqnnouncement on a commission was in the works.
"There have been discussions about that but nothing firm or concrete," she said.