Assembly still hasn't passed a budget

Pushing legislative brinkmanship to its limits, the General Assembly will go into the last scheduled day of its 90-day session Monday without an agreement on the one thing it must get done under Maryland's Constitution: pass a balanced budget.

Most delegates and senators left Annapolis Saturday night with no plans to meet on the Easter holiday. If they fail to reach an agreement on spending, taxes and related issues by the stroke of midnight Monday, they would be forced into the first extended session since the early 1990s.

Negotiators who had been seeking a compromise between the two chambers on the pivotal issue of an income tax increase appeared close to a deal Saturday afternoon but couldn't quite close it amid signs that budget issues had become intertwined with the volatile issue of expanded gambling.

The two sides appeared poised to agree on a plan that would raise income taxes on Marylanders with taxable income of more than $100,000. Those households would see their taxes rise between one-quarter and three-quarters of a percentage point, depending on how much they make. The highest bracket would include anyone making more than $250,000. They would pay a state income tax of 5.75 percent.

Senate leaders were hoping the House would agree to the upper chamber's latest proposal to expand gambling in Maryland by allowing a sixth casino, to be located in Prince George's County, and to allow table games in addition to slot machines at all six. The measure is a priority of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The new gambling plan approved by the Senate Saturday would put the broad parameters of the proposal up for referendum in November and leave it to the legislature to fill in the details next year if voters say yes. Senate leaders hope to get a vote this year because if a bill doesn't pass Monday, the matter could not go before voters until the next general election in 2014.

Whatever their differences on gambling, lawmakers were finding enough to disagree about on budget issues to ensure a suspenseful Monday.

"This is really coming to a rough, last-minute finish," House Majority Leader Kumar Barve said Saturday night.

But Barve said he assumed key lawmakers would hold informal talks Sunday. He said that if lawmakers can resolve their remaining differences early enough Monday, there is still enough time to get all the budget-related bills through the House and Senate before midnight.

"I really think we may just need a day to sleep and relax and chill out," he said Saturday.

Lawmakers said other key aspects of Maryland's $34 billion operating budget were on the verge of resolution — including details of a proposal to shift teacher pension costs from the state to the counties — but not yet done.

"We have four bills open that have to be resolved in the next 48 hours," budget mediator Warren Deschenaux told the group.

The income tax plan under consideration is a mesh of ideas offered over the past three months by the House, the Senate and Gov. Martin O'Malley. The greatest new tax burden would fall on the wealthiest, as O'Malley and the House have wanted.

Off the table is any rollback in deductions, such as the mortgage deduction, an idea that O'Malley proposed but which was fought by real estate agents and declared a nonstarter in the General Assembly.

House leaders told the Senate's budget writers Saturday that they want to fix a state education formula that has long irked Prince George's County lawmakers — a provision that was initially floated in a gambling expansion bill.

Prince George's lawmakers argue that their county has been placed at a disadvantage by the way the wealth of each county is calculated. This year some of the 23-member Prince George's House delegation — a key bloc in House Speaker Michael E. Busch's Democratic majority — vowed not to agree to a final tax deal until that formula is fixed.

The House-floated plan would provide an extra $14 million to Prince George's when fully implemented. Baltimore would ultimately see an additional $2.8 million. It would not cost any money in the pending budget because the new formula wouldn't take effect until the next year.

Before it adjourned, the Senate passed a new, stripped-down version of a bill that would expand gambling in Maryland. The new bill, which passed 37-9 late Saturday, would put the broad parameters of a plan before voters in November as a statewide referendum.

Voters would be asked to approve a measure allowing the Prince George's casino, permitting table games and increasing the number of slot machines allowed statewide by 1,000 — from 15,000 to 16,000.

There would be no separate Prince George's County referendum on gambling, which had been a provision of the original Senate bill. Miller said the new bill would not require changes to the Maryland Constitution, meaning a bill could pass the House with 71 votes rather than 85.

The new plan replaces a more detailed Senate bill that the House found objectionable. If state voters approve the measure, many details would have to be worked out during next year's legislative session.

Hundreds of other bills were passed during the marathon Saturday session. Notably, the Assembly adopted a ban on arsenic additives in chicken feed; if O'Malley signs the bill into law, Maryland will become the first state in the nation to take such a step to keep the toxic chemical out of food and the environment.

The Senate also passed its version of O'Malley's proposal to double the $2.50-a-month "flush tax" that goes toward sewer-system upgrades needed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The Senate passed the bill 28-18, but not before exempting from the increase some Garrett County residents who live west of the Eastern Continental Divide.

Senators accepted the argument of Sen. George Edwards, a Garrett Republican, that the waste produced by those residents doesn't flow into the bay but toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The bill now goes back to the House to see whether the chambers can agree on the changes made in the Senate.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.