Republicans sense opportunity in return to Annapolis

Philosophically, Maryland Republicans are virtually unanimous in their opposition to calling the General Assembly back to Annapolis to raise taxes or expand gambling. But strategically, they couldn't be happier that Democrats are planning to do just that.

For the state's minority party, Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision to convene a special session in May and possibly another later this year is an unexpected political gift — a twin set of clubs with which to beat the dominant Democrats over the head for their inability to accomplish their goals in the 90-day session that ended April 9.

O'Malley announced Friday that a special session on the budget will begin May 14.

Since the governor first floated the two-session idea, Republican activists have barely been able to suppress their glee. If Democratic leaders had not called a special session on the budget, they would have outraged some of their key constituencies that feel cheated by the outcome of the regular session.

But by calling that session, Democrats have opened the door for Republican attacks on their competence, their priorities and their use of state resources.

"The Democrats across the state and the Republicans across the state and independents across the state are coming to me and saying, 'Have they lost their minds?''' said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County.

O'Donnell, like most Republicans, sees no need to return to Annapolis to fix what Democrats are calling the "doomsday budget" — a scaled-back spending plan that became law when legislative leaders let time run out on the last night of the session without passing an income tax increase to which they had agreed. The House also failed to pass a measure shifting part of the cost of teacher pensions to the counties.

The resulting $500 million in cuts to O'Malley's proposed budget affect such signature Democratic programs as education and health care.

But to Republicans, doomsday doesn't look bad at all. They certainly prefer it to a tax increase. And, as many Republicans like to point out, the budget the legislature adopted still represents a $700 million increase in spending over last year.

"I consider the doomsday session worse than the doomsday budget," said Harford County Executive David Craig, a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2014.

The Republican solution: Stay home.

If O'Malley's rejection of that advice looks to Republicans like the political equivalent of an ice cream sundae, the notion of second session to address gambling is the cherry on top.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has been pushing a measure to authorize a sixth casino in Maryland, at National Harbor in Prince George's County, and to allow table games at all six slots parlors.

The governor's contention is that without a session of its own, the thorny issue of gambling is likely to become intertwined with the budget — threatening a repeat of the legislative meltdown that occurred at the end of the regular session, when Miller pushed casino legislation despite resistance in the House. O'Malley has suggested launching a study of expanded gambling and perhaps calling legislators back if it creates the basis for a consensus.

But each day lawmakers are back in Annapolis represents a cost to the taxpayers of about $25,000 — not a huge amount in terms of a $35 billion state budget, but an easily understood sum that Republicans can portray as money down the drain.

"The Democrats have really stepped in it," said Del. Bill Frank, a Baltimore County Republican. "They own the special session. We are very reluctant participants."

Frank said he plans to suggest to his caucus that Republican legislators forgo the reimbursement for food, gas and other expenses to which they would be entitled during any special session.

"We should have got the job done by April 9 at midnight," he said. "If we're dragged back into a special session, we should pay our own way." Frank said Republicans should challenge Democrats to do the same.

Del. Michael J. Hough, a Frederick County Republican, pointed out that in the May session, the focus will be almost entirely on the unpopular issue of taxes. And a special session on gambling, he said, would be perceived as being held "for one of Mike Miller's pet projects."

The chaotic finish to the regular session and the talk of a do-over or two has given Republicans an opening to portray their political foes not just as knaves but as fools. A photo illustration has been circulating in Republican circles showing O'Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch as the Three Stooges.

"The Democrats have been running the state really incompetently, and it's on display right now," Hough said.

Joe Steffen, a onetime aide to Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and now a political blogger, said that when he heard about O'Malley's suggestion of two special sessions, he "burst out laughing."

"What gets me is Martin O'Malley is not a stupid guy," Steffen said. "The damage he's doing to himself two, three years down the road. ... In one way, I'm like, 'Dude, what are you thinking?'"

Sounding a note of caution was Republican former Del. Donald Murphy of Catonsville. He noted that voters won't get a chance to respond, in the form of legislative elections, for another 21/2 years.

"I'm not sure the average person knows when is session, when is not," he said. "I'm not sure this really matters that much."

Busch said he doesn't think special sessions will weigh heavily on voters' minds by 2014.

"You continue to go about your business, and at the end of four years, you hope they judge you on the body of work you've accomplished," he said. If the economy is in good shape, and if voters perceive that the state has made progress on education and the environment, most Democrats will be in good shape, he said.

But Republicans are seeing opportunity — predicting that the talk of multiple sessions will help them with fundraising and candidate recruitment as well as at the polls in 2014.

O'Donnell, who is running for Congress in the 5th District, was careful to express more dismay on behalf of taxpayers than exuberance over his party's prospects. But he found plenty to smile about in the Democratic disarray.

"When your political opponents are destroying themselves, Rule No. 1 is don't get in the way," he said.

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