State's leaders avoid the big issue

The Baltimore Sun

When the General Assembly adjourns tonight, leaders in the state Senate, the House of Delegates and the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley will have demonstrated that they can work together - so long as they ignore the fundamental issues that divide them.

The 423rd session of the Maryland General Assembly is meandering to a close as lawmakers work out technical details on remaining issues.

Legislators considered issues such as immigration and the abolition of the death penalty this year but appear likely to leave Annapolis without having gotten bogged down in divisive debates like those that occurred during recent sessions over slot machines, electric rates and malpractice reform.

But lawmakers are also likely to leave without giving any clear indication of how they will resolve the deep divide between the Senate and the House of Delegates over how to close a gap between revenues and expenditures that could top $1.5 billion next year. O'Malley has promised to spend the next few months developing a consensus, but he has not yet made overtures to bring legislators together on the issue.

"It concerns me a great deal," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a veteran Republican lawmaker from the Eastern Shore. "It's hard to be governor. It's hard to lead, but you've got to be willing to lead, and I haven't seen it."

For O'Malley, the decision to hold back on addressing the deficit was strategic, born of a conviction that Annapolis needed time to settle down after four years of divided government and that it would be wrong to ask Marylanders to pay more taxes before he has had a chance to reduce the cost of government.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor's efforts to reach out to legislators - including Democratic leaders, Republicans and newly elected lawmakers - has laid the groundwork for compromise on difficult issues.

"We've created an atmosphere where the governor and the General Assembly are working together to improve the quality of life for the families of Maryland," Abbruzzese said. "We have accomplished a great deal together, and I think we've been able to do that because we haven't allowed ourselves to get sidetracked before we have an opportunity to make our government more efficient."

O'Malley, a Democrat, came to Annapolis determined to avoid a repeat of the bitter fights over slot machines that drowned out other issues during the term of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The new governor said he wanted to avoid debating slots or other possible solutions to Maryland's budget problems until he has had time to find efficiencies in state government and develop a comprehensive solution.

He felt strongly enough about putting off that discussion that he made it a key point in the conclusion of his State of the State speech in January.

"In the days of this first session, I hope, my friends, that we will be able to spend the vast majority of our time solving problems and coming together around the solutions about which, really, there is so very, very much consensus that already exists in both chambers, even across party lines - and for which, I might add, there is a considerable amount of pent-up, public demand," O'Malley said.

In a sense, he succeeded. No slot bill made it to the floor of the House or Senate, and the issue consumed no more than one long afternoon committee hearing.

But his hope that the legislature would spend its time solving the other major problems of the state was not entirely fulfilled.

Legislators appear likely to finish the session tonight with a few memorable accomplishments, notably a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, a requirement that cars sold in Maryland pollute less and a package of protections for residents whose homes are subject to ground rent.

But what those issues and others have in common is that they do not cost the state money. Proposals that would require a significant outlay got caught amid disagreement between the House and Senate over how to approach the looming fiscal crisis, and that dispute, in turn, was largely a proxy battle for the debate on slot machine gambling.

Budget negotiations last week between the House and Senate showed how close to the surface the dispute lies.

One of the few pieces of drama in the waning days of the legislative session stemmed from an unusual delay in the approval of O'Malley's proposed $30 billion budget.

Negotiators from the two chambers agreed Saturday to the outlines of a deal, nearly a week behind schedule, and planned to wait until today to return formally to the bargaining table, leaving until the last day of the session the one thing that legislators are required by the state constitution to do: pass a balanced budget.

Senators and delegates had agreed on nearly everything, but when negotiators met Wednesday, they quickly dug in their heels over a dozen items, including funding for the University System of Maryland, stem cell research and whether to make a $53 million payment toward the Inter-County Connector now or delay it for a year.

But before the negotiators left the bargaining table, Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, alluded to the crux of the divide that separates the two chambers: slots.

"We could pass slots tomorrow - $800 million. That would make a real difference," Currie said. "These cuts are meaningless."

O'Malley and his aides have worked throughout the session to avoid just such a confrontation, and the governor was preoccupied for the past few days with making sure that this flare-up of tensions is quickly extinguished.

He brought House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller together to hammer out a compromise on the budget, but on many other issues, he stayed out of the disagreements between the two.

Busch, who opposes slots but has supported increases to the sales tax and other levies, pushed this year for a major expansion of health insurance for low-income workers and children, funded through a $1-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax. He also supported a new program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, paid for with new fees on development.

Those bills went nowhere in the Senate. Miller refused to consider any measures that raised or spent significant amounts of money that were not part of a comprehensive plan to eliminate the structural deficit or a shortfall in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. Any such plan, he insisted, would have to include slots.

Miller tried to push O'Malley into quick action on slots, but the governor didn't take the bait. O'Malley has staked out a middle ground on the issue, saying that he supports expanded gambling to help the horse racing industry but not as a budget panacea.

O'Malley "understands and appreciates the problem," Miller said. "I'm not sure he understands how difficult it's going to be to get people to agree on how to solve the problem."

Republicans, badly outnumbered in the General Assembly, have not played a major role in the disputes this year, and it is unclear how involved they will be in the fiscal discussion next year.

O'Malley has reached out to Republicans, meeting with them in his office and inviting them to the governor's mansion for lunches. But they didn't get far with Democratic colleagues in the legislature when they proposed a package of cuts to the budget now under debate in an attempt to ease the pain next year.

"The minority has offered some solutions," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Calvert County. "They have been rejected, but I haven't heard any other suggestions other than a lot of saber-rattling about raising taxes."

Miller and Busch are Democrats, but they are not close. Those who hold their positions in Maryland government often are not, but the strongly hierarchical structure of the General Assembly means that their cooperation is essential if major legislation is to pass.

This week, O'Malley was able to bring the two together on an idea they have misgivings about - a "living wage" law designed to require higher pay for employees of government contractors. The governor made it a top priority for his administration, but the bill appeared dead - with neither Miller nor Busch lining up to support it.

O'Malley brokered a compromise and muscled it through the House, despite significant reservations among lawmakers. The Senate now appears likely to pass the measure.

O'Malley will have to craft a package of revenue measures and cuts to solve the budget deficit, but his get-to-know-you tour this year eventually could make selling his plan easier.

"People are becoming comfortable with each other," Busch said. "There's been a better flow of communication from the executive branch to the legislative branch. It's going to be beneficial."

Among Democratic leaders, Miller has been the most critical of O'Malley's decision to hold off on fiscal solutions. Nonetheless, he said he is confident that the governor will be able to enact them.

"When he chooses to act, I think we'll see some very positive things happen," Miller said.

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