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Debacle in Annapolis

ElectionsBudgets and Budgeting

It wouldn't be right to call the calamitous end of the General Assembly session a failure. The word "failure" implies that those involved were trying to do the right thing and were for some reason unsuccessful. What happened Monday night, as the politics of an ill-considered gambling expansion bill tangled up a sensible compromise on taxes and the budget, was something quite different, a mixture of sabotage, negligence and too-cute-by-half gamesmanship. It reflects poorly on Maryland's leaders and belies the seriousness of the one real matter at hand: Who should be asked to pay more to maintain crucial state services, and how much? Gov.Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House SpeakerMichael E. Buschneed to bring the legislature back for a special session to resolve that issue, and they need to get it right this time.

The chief architect of Monday's mischief appears to have been Mr. Miller. He was insistent on moving legislation this year to expand gambling to a sixth site in Maryland, either at Rosecroft Raceway or National Harbor in his nativePrince George's County, and to authorize table games throughout the state. The matter was the subject of little attention or debate until a gambling bill sailed out of the Senate two weeks ago. Despite the fact that the legislation had little, if any, connection to state revenues and expenditures in the next fiscal year, Mr. Miller insisted that it be considered in concert with the tax and spending bills that were must-do items for the General Assembly. Senate negotiators only agreed to a compromise with the House on income tax increases after House leaders agreed to bring a gambling bill up for a vote. As that bill's prospects dimmed on the House floor, the Senate's consideration of the tax measures slowed, and time ran out.

Mr. Miller sought to put a good face on the matter this morning in his traditional joint appearance with the governor and House speaker. He heaped praise on Mr. Busch for his work in trying to come to an agreement and insisted that the clock simply ran out before the tax package could be voted on. He said the breakdown was a "minor bump in the road" that would be corrected by a special legislative session of one or two days, once lawmakers see how deep the cuts in the budget will be if they don't approve any tax increases. But the key question is this: Will he stick to his insistence that the gambling bill be part of the special session?

In the dispute between the House and the Senate, Mr. Busch was right on the tax issue — he insisted on a smaller overall tax increase and to shield those who make less than $100,000 — and he was right on the gambling issue. There is no reason for the state to consider expanding its gambling program until its existing one is fully up and running. But he made a mistake in allowing himself to be sucked into the tax and gambling gamesmanship. If there are not enough votes for the gambling plan the Senate initially forwarded to the House — as appears clear — Mr. Busch should simply have allowed his chamber to vote it down a week ago.

Although the 11th-hour drama centered on the House and the Senate, Mr. O'Malley is ultimately the one in charge, and the debacle reflects badly on him. He had some harsh words after the fact — in a 1 a.m. news conference, he decried those who let "egos and pet projects" get in the way of the "common good," and this morning, he referred to the previous night's events as a "damn shame" that set the state back. Where was he a week ago when it was clear that the two chambers were on a collision course? He needed to be publicly and aggressively involved in pushing the debate from the start, but instead, he took a laissez-faire attitude toward the legislature's handling of the budget. Tweeting "Hopeful that the GA will pass a compromise that protects priorities like education while creating jobs & expanding opportunity" two hours and 13 minutes before the legislature is set to adjourn doesn't cut it.

Messrs. O'Malley, Miller and Busch have 21/2 months to clean this mess up before the state's "doomsday" budget, with its half-billion dollars in cuts to education, public safety and other crucial services, goes into effect. They need to hold a special session of the legislature in the coming weeks, but before they do, they need to come to an agreement on a package of bills that deal with the actual pressing issues of the state, not invented ones like expanded gambling.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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