The Maryland Senate spent Wednesday afternoon plowing through the state budget bill and a companion measure shifting part of the cost of teacher pensions from the state to the counties, turning back Republican attempts to amend the legislation.
Late in the afternoon, after giving preliminary approval to both measures, senators turned to the big fight of the week: consideration of a revenue bill that includes a $416 million increase in state income tax rates. If that measure and the budget companion bill don't pass, almost $750 million in contingent cuts in the budget bill would take effect. Those cuts -- which would fall heavily on education, health, law enforcement and state workers -- are collectively known as the "doomsday budget" though some Republicans prefer to call it a "live within your means"spending plan.
Also on the evening's agenda is a bill holding the counties responsible for keeping up their required level of funding for education -- known as "maintenance of effort." That debate could see a showdown over an expected amendment seeking to knock out a provision of the bill that would let county governments override tax caps adopted by voters at referendum if the resulting revenues are used for education. That part of the bill has drawn opposition from some Democrats from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, which have such caps.
Before the Senate turned to the revenue bill, Republicans offered multiple amendments to both bills, some attempting major changes and others picking away at details. They ranged from an attempt to hold spending at the levels of the current fiscal year to an alternate pension shift plan to attempts to penalize agencies financially for abuses found in audits.
Except for a relatively minor amendment accepted by the Senate leadership, all were voted down by thumping margins. The Senate pension shift plan, which would extend O'Malley's proposed one-year shift over four years, emerged unscathed.
Despite knowing their efforts were futile, GOP senators waged a spirited fight for several hours.
"We appreciate the enthusiasm," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller observed late in the afternoon. "The rhetoric makes it almost enjoyable."
Indications were that Miller had his chamber well in hand and was moving toward his goal of finishing up the four-bill package by late Friday -- even though he will probably have to break a filibuster on the income tax measure to do so. The bill would then go to the House of Delegates, where fiscal leaders have their own ideas on how to balance the budget.