No talks happening as Assembly deadline nears

The sky is a bright blue over the State House dome, and the weather couldn't be more pleasant. A gentle breeze stirs the early morning air, and the House and Senate still aren't talking -- at least in any public way.

On Sunday night, House SpeakerMichael E. Buschsaid the House members of the conference committees on the budget would be ready to meet as of 7:30 a.m. in an effort to wind up the 2012 session by midnight and avoid having to go into overtime.

That time has passed, and no face-to-face talks are happening. Much can be accomplished with phone calls, but there will likely have to be one meeting before an agreement on budget issues can be brought to the floor.

The holdup is apparently a gambling expansion bill that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants enough to push the Assembly to the brink of its first extended session in 20 years. Busch has shown little enthusiasm for the measure, but the House Ways & Means Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Senate's newest proposal -- embodied in a bill hastily passed on  Saturday -- at 9:30 a.m.

It's unlikely to be a long hearing. The House and Senate meet at 10 a.m. But the budget conferees could meet anytime -- if they get the green light from the speaker and Senate president.

What's happening here is the legislative equivalent of a game of chicken. Nobody -- not the lawmakers, not the lobbyists, not the staff, not the reporters -- wants an extended session. Everyone is exhausted after 90 days of legislating. But Miller is the irresistable force, and Busch is the immovable object -- at least until someone blinks.

There is still plenty of time to get a deal on the budget -- the one task the General Assembly is commanded by the state Constitution to complete each year. But the later in the day an agreement comes, the more logistical problems there will be. A conference committee report must be printed and distributed -- a job that will take about five hours, according to Busch.

So by early evening, the inhabitants of the State House should have a good idea whether they will be going home after tonight or be stuck in Annapolis. If it's the latter, it is safe to say the mood will grow uglier with each day the legislature goes without a budget.


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