Two-session plan may work

Maryland should not have needed a special session of the legislature — the General Assembly could easily have finished its business before its scheduled adjournment earlier this month. Now, after a meeting today among Gov.Martin O'Malley, House SpeakerMichael E. Buschand Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, there's talk about having two. In the bizarro world our State House has become, this is actually a sign of progress. It should allow lawmakers to correct the problems caused by their failure to pass two key budget measures without getting bogged down in a divisive (and entirely elective) debate about expanded gambling.

Without a special session, Maryland's budget would remain a tangled mess. Because a tax measure and a companion bill that authorized a number of spending cuts and fund transfers did not pass along with the main budget legislation, the state faces about a half-billion dollars in cuts to key programs such as K-12 education. Meanwhile, other programs lawmakers intended to cut are funded in full. Moreover, a special session to deal with those problems needs to come sooner rather than later because many of the cuts that are now in place affect aid to the counties and Baltimore City, and those jurisdictions need some certainty as they complete their own budgets over the coming weeks.

The key sticking point in negotiations between the House and Senate in the waning moments of the regular legislative session was over the extent of income tax increases. House negotiators insisted that income taxes should not go up for any individuals earning less than $100,000 a year (or families earning less than $150,000 a year), while the Senate was pushing for additional limits on the exemptions that could be claimed by some taxpayers at lower income levels.

It is a question with implications that resonate more strongly in politics than policy. The amount of money the Senate's plan would have cost taxpayers at lower income levels was small — generally less than $1 a week — and the House's $100,000 line in the sand is, on some level, arbitrary. But the additional money the Senate sought to raise was not needed to stave off cuts to any vital programs. The $40 million it would have generated would simply have put the state in a stronger position heading into the next year.

In general, we support the House's position — and, it should be noted, the Senate eventually agreed to it before the clock ran out on the session's last day. Maryland does still face some budget challenges next year, but they are much smaller than those it has dealt with in recent memory. With some signs that the economy's recovery may strengthen in the months ahead, it would be reasonable to take a more conservative position on taxes and wait to see whether revenues improve more than expected. That said, the difference between the two chambers' positions is minuscule in the context of the state budget, and even in the context of most families' budgets. Both sides should be willing to compromise here for the greater good.

At today's meeting, Governor O'Malley floated the idea of a second special session, sometime this summer, to consider expanding Maryland's gambling program. Senator Miller's proposal to add a sixth casino at National Harbor inPrince George's Countyand to allow table games there and at the state's existing slots parlors — or some variation on it — could be taken up then, instead of allowing it to bog down the vitally important work of straightening out the fiscal 2013 budget.

We consider it unwise for Maryland to expand its gambling program before the existing one is even fully off the ground. However, Mr. O'Malley's idea at least allows the opportunity for a more rigorous study than was possible during the legislative session of the market conditions in the state and the likely impact of any changes to the number of locations, tax rates or types of games allowed. If, after that, there is no strong case to be made for a gambling expansion or no clear consensus in the legislature to support one, the second special session could be called off.

The lack of consensus among Messrs. O'Malley, Miller and Busch after this morning's meeting, the trio's first face-to-face-to-face since the morning after the session adjourned in chaos, is neither surprising nor particularly dispiriting. It will take time for the ill will and recriminations that followed the session to fade, and the two legislative leaders will need to feel out their caucuses to see where they stand. After taking a beating in their districts, senators and delegates may be much more eager to come together than they were two weeks ago. The public is angry that the governor and legislators didn't do their jobs during the 90-day regular session, and the only way to calm them is to come back in a special session and do the people's business quickly and efficiently. Today's meeting didn't end in a deal, but it at least suggested a path forward.

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