They did what they had to do, and they went home. That's the best that can be said of the special session of the Maryland General Assembly that concluded today. The tax increases, spending cuts, fund transfers and other measures lawmakers approved in 21/2 days this week protect public education, health and public safety and put the state on a path to fiscal sustainability, all while requiring a relatively minimal additional contribution from taxpayers. After a chaotic end to the regular General Assembly session, order has been restored.
Lawmakers' actions may have staved off the fiscal and social damage that would have been caused by their failure last month, but what about the political fallout? Voters are keenly aware that lawmakers were responding to a crisis of their own making, one that fed the notion that Maryland has an absentee governor and an arrogant General Assembly leadership. Did the efficiency of this week's special session begin to erase that stain, or will it have lasting political effects? Here's how the key players come out.
•Gov. Martin O'Malley: The governor looked somewhat aloof and disengaged when work on the budget stalled and the clock ran out on the legislature in April. Suddenly, his frequent appearances on national television news talk shows and at out-of-state political events started to look like liabilities. His tough talk for legislative leaders the morning after the budget debacle sounded too little, too late. However, since then, he has managed to bring House SpeakerMichael E. Busch and Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller together. His suggestion of putting off any discussion of expanded gambling until a possible second special session provided a path forward, and this week's session went off without a hitch. It doesn't make him look good, but it minimizes the damage.
Republicans got in some good shots at the governor's record on taxes — Sen.E.J. Pipkin dubbed him the "$2 billion governor" — and that will certainly be exploited by his opponents if Mr. O'Malley does, as expected, seek national office. But on that score, this special session almost certainly won't be the most significant political event of the year for the governor. Voter referendums on in-state tuition for illegal immigration and same-sex marriage will matter much more.
•Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller: The longtime leader of the Senate got the brunt of the initial blame for the budget collapse on the final night of the legislative session. He had been pushing hard for an expansion of gambling, including legalizing table games and authorizing a sixth Maryland casino at National Harbor, and the widespread belief in Annapolis was that he held up the budget to gain leverage for that effort. Some of his statements before and after the final day of the session lent credence to that interpretation of events, and for a time, there were rumblings that his performance could lead to a coup and new leadership in the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter-century.
Mr. Miller assiduously denies that his push for gambling was the reason for the budget failure, and whatever the truth is about what happened on the session's last day, he has taken every step necessary since then to move forward. He did not push for consideration of gambling this week, and he did not insist on reopening negotiations with the House on the tax package, instead sticking with an agreement that closely mirrored the lower chamber's initial plan. The smooth proceedings in the Senate this week suggest he remains firmly in control.
•House Speaker Michael Busch: Though some senators complained that the House negotiators' unwillingness to meet them halfway on taxes was the reason for the budget breakdown, Mr. Busch caught less of the blame for it than the governor and Senate president. During the special session, he held his caucus in line, with the only real challenge coming from a small group of Montgomery County delegates who pushed for an alternative to income tax increases. Still, voters who don't follow the day-to-day machinations in Annapolis are likely to come away with a worse impression of everyone in power, the speaker included.
•The Republicans: House and Senate Republicans did an effective job of protesting against the work of this special session without overplaying their hands. They made sure the public knew that the so-called "doomsday budget" actually increased total state spending over last year — a point that sounds much more compelling than it really is but which requires a lengthy and complicated explanation to overcome. The decision of Republican senators not to mount a filibuster was also wise — it would be hard to argue that the session was a waste of time and money if they were responsible for the whole affair being longer and more costly.
But will it turn the tide in the GOP's favor come election time? Probably not, at least not by itself. The next gubernatorial election is more than two years away, and a lot will happen between now and then. Moreover, the legislature had a similar failure in 2006, when an effort to mitigate a 72 percent BGE rate increase died on the Senate floor in the last moments of the regular session, forcing lawmakers to come back a few months later. The result? Republicans lost the governor's mansion and a few seats in the House. The Democrats in the State House look bad — and deservedly so — for being forced to come back to Annapolis, but it will take a lot more to turn blue Maryland red.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun