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The truth, according to Mike Miller

Budgets and Budgeting

To be Mike Miller, it seems, is to be misunderstood.

The Senate president and Annapolis institution has been getting most of the blame (including from this editorial page) for the failure of key budget and tax bills at the end of the General Assembly session last week. The general impression had been that he was holding up consideration of the budget as leverage to get what he really wanted: a referendum to allow a casino inPrince George's County, and, as part of the bargain, table games at all of Maryland's slots parlors.

But Mr. Miller now assures us that could not be further from the truth. In a letter this week to the state's other 46 senators, he wrote that any impression that the collapse of the budget talks was related to gambling is "patently untrue." He concedes that he is a strong supporter of bringing a gambling expansion before the voters but insists he "in no way sought to involve the gaming issue into the [fiscal] 2013 budget debate." The hang-up on the budget compromise was rooted in a debate on policy, and the Senate "stood on principle."

Oh, Senator Miller, how could we have been so wrong? Could we have been misled by his earlier explanation of what had broken the logjam between House and Senate conferees over the budget ("We made an agreement we were going to pass the gambling bill")? Or was it his assessment in the hours after the legislature's anticlimactic adjournment of what remained to be done in a special legislative session ("Just the two issues, revenues and gaming, remain on the table")? Honestly, who wouldn't have been thrown off the scent by the otherwise inexplicable decision of famously anti-gambling House Speaker Michael E. Busch to spend much of the session's final evening debating a gambling referendum?

As for the "principle" on which the Senate stood during budget negotiations, it appears to have been that a larger number of Marylanders should pay higher income taxes than House leaders wanted. The House plan called for higher tax rates and some limits on personal exemptions for individuals making more than $100,000 and couples making more than $150,000. As of early afternoon on the day the legislature was scheduled to adjourn, Senate negotiators were insisting on limiting exemptions for those making less than $100,000 as well. Their proposal, which was set to expire after three years, would have raised an additional $50 million and would have cost the average taxpayer about $40 a year.

What crucial services would that have protected in next year's budget? None, actually. It was not needed to balance the budget — indeed, the two sides eventually agreed to a compromise that would have squared the books without it. The money would instead have increased the state's projected fund balance at the end of the year and, potentially, put Maryland in a somewhat better position heading into fiscal 2014.

Mr. Miller's letter has raised some consternation among those who recall the events of last Monday differently, in particular Mr. Busch, who told The Sun's Annie Linskey: "I think everyone down here understands what the facts are around the last day of session."

We, however, take Mr. Miller at his word. If he says the budget and gambling issues are not linked in his mind, we believe him. In fact, we cheer the news. After all, if the Senate's willingness to move forward with the compromise on taxes and spending it agreed to with the House on the session's last night was not contingent in any way on the House approving a gambling referendum, then there's no reason to take the matter up in a special session.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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