The Maryland Senate launches what is expected to be at least a three-day marathon today as it takes up the state budget for next year -- including its response to Gov. Martin O'Malley's call for an increase in income taxes.
Senators will begin debating amendments today to a four-bill package including the budget itself, a tax bill, an annual budget companion bill that includes a much-debated shift of teacher pension costs to the counties and a measure requiring counties to maintain their level of spending on schools to match recent increases in state education aid.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller expects to call two sessions today and will likely do so again Thursday and Friday. He has said he hopes to wrap up the package by the end of Friday, sparing the need for a Saturday session.
The budget itself is likely to be the least controversial of the four bills. It includes $737 million in contingent cuts -- the key components of what Miller has called the "doomsday budget" -- if the General Assembly doesn't pass the tax bill and the pension shift. If those measures aren’t adopted, drastic cuts to state education aid, Medicaid and police assistance go into effect automatically.
The biggest fight will likely come on the tax bill authored by Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, which would raise income tax rates on most Maryland taxpayers by escalating amounts based on income. That approach, adopted by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, is a shift from O'Malley's plan to raise income taxes for the top 20 percent of earners by phasing out deductions and exemptions starting at $100,000 in taxable income.
Miller has said he believes he has the 24 votes needed to pass the tax bill and stave off the cuts. But he is also likely to have to muster the 29 votes needed to break a filibuster. The Senate president's track record suggests he will succeed by pulling in votes from moderate to conservative Democrats who hold leadership positions.
The budget companion bill is also likely to stimulate lively debate because it includes a measure to shift a share of teacher pension costs to the counties. However, the Senate version of that proposal takes a more gradual approach that the governor did and may help defuse some of the opposition from county officials. There seems to be an emerging consensus between Senate, House and the governor that some shift needs to take place.
The proposal on so-called "maintenance of effort" -- requiring counties to meet specified targets in education spending -- could also bring about a lively fight. The teeth of the bill come in a provision that would withhold income tax collections from counties that fail to keep up required spending levels and to direct those funds to the local school board. However, the most controversial provision is likely to be one allowing county governments to override local tax caps adopted by voters to fund education. That proposal is especially controversial in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, which have such caps and where Democrats on the budget committee voted for an unsuccessful attempt to strip that provision.
One way or another, the package is expected to move to the House next week, where delegates are expected to introduce a different approach to a tax increase. Then the package would go to a conference committee, where the final details would be hammered out in the final weeks of the 90-day session.