Deficit brings up old lesson

The Baltimore Sun

While Gov. Martin O'Malley says he'd like to solve Maryland's budget problems in a special General Assembly session this fall, he appears to have learned a lesson from his predecessor's term: Don't do it unless you've got a solid deal in place first.

The idea that a special session is not the place to hash out details or come to a compromise is an Annapolis cliche, but it was proved when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called lawmakers back to work on medical malpractice reform and to protect customers from BGE electric rate increases.

Both times, major details were left to be worked out. Both times, the Democratic legislature defied Ehrlich's wishes. Both times, he vetoed the product of the sessions he called and the legislature overrode him.

Democratic lawmakers -- especially with one of their own as governor -- don't want to see that happen.

"I don't think there's any point in coming back unless you have an idea worked out, and not just a solid one but one where the signatures are already on the paper," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the majority leader from Montgomery County. "It's got to be like that."

The governor can unilaterally call a special session, or the speaker and Senate president can agree to call one. The timing is up to whoever calls the session, but as a practical matter, O'Malley said, there's no point in coming back too close to the regular session in January.

"A special session has the advantage of having everyone focused on that task," O'Malley said. "But if we get into December and still have not been able to make that consensus, it doesn't make a lot of sense."

Maryland faces a projected $1.5 billion annual gap between revenues and expenditures, which the governor wants to fix through a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and new revenue that would come from legalizing slot machines.

Slots appear to be the biggest source of disagreement among the Democratic leaders. O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller favor them, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch does not.

Miller and O'Malley both said they think consensus on most issues is near. Busch was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment, but Barve said significant obstacles remain.

Even if the leaders can agree in general that slots should be part of the solution, an agreement on how to implement them could be difficult because of disagreements over the number of machines, locations, ownership, distribution of licenses and other details, Barve said.

"Getting people together is going to be a challenge," Barve said.

O'Malley said that for a session to be practical, he will need to have secured substantial consensus by the end of this month so that he can call legislators back in late October or November.

Three years ago, Ehrlich was in a similar position. He had been working for months to raise public awareness of rising medical malpractice insurance rates for doctors, particularly obstetricians. He wanted strict limits on malpractice lawsuits. Democrats, who thought the problem was cyclical, wanted to set up a fund to lower doctors' rates temporarily, preferably funded by extending an insurance premium tax to HMOs.

By December, Ehrlich, Busch and Miller had agreed on many details but not on the funding source for the premium subsidy fund.

Ehrlich called the legislators back between Christmas and New Year's Day. Legislators enacted the HMO tax and passed less in the way of lawsuit reform than Ehrlich says he was promised. He pledged a veto before the bill even came back from the printers.

The occasion prompted one of the most colorful utterances of Miller's long and highly quotable career: "I make a lot of promises, and I try to keep most of them."

Similar dynamics played themselves out when Ehrlich called legislators back for the session on the BGE.

But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said O'Malley will get much more leeway for one simple reason: He's a Democrat.

"In this case, you've got two legislative leaders that want the governor to look good, and so instead of undermining him, they're going to try to make things work," Stoltzfus said. "They're going to have an agreement prior to it that they're going to stick to."

In 2004, then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, persuaded a Republican-controlled legislature to vote during a special session to enact new taxes worth $1.4 billion over two years. He did it by making his plan public and traveling the state to persuade voters to support it.

O'Malley said he has the basic contours of his plan in mind and will release them in the coming weeks.

The potential benefits of a special session for a Maryland governor were on display in 1992, when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, needed to come up with $450 million to balance the budget. Part of his plan was to cut $147 million in aid to local governments, an idea that would have had the heaviest impact on Montgomery County.

Some of the most powerful members of the leadership in both chambers opposed it, including then-Sen. Laurence Levitan, who chaired the Budget and Taxation Committee, and then-Del. Nancy K. Kopp, who was the second-ranking member of the House of Delegates. But when the session came, theirs and other voices from Montgomery County were quickly drowned out.

Former Sen. Howard A Denis, a Montgomery Republican who tried to lead a filibuster against the plan, said that's the advantage of a special session for the governor. When no other issues are on the table, it's virtually impossible for dissenters to build a coalition in opposition to the leadership's plan, he said.

"When you deal with these issues in a regular session, there is a mix going on and you can compromise and leverage and look to other matters to try to either mitigate or go on the offense," Denis said. "When you have a special session on a fiscal issue and you can look to a program that has a disproportionate impact [on one group], well, that's always been a problem."

Opponents of slots fear that they could wind up being the ignored opposition group if O'Malley calls a special session this year. Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he and other slots opponents are anxious about a special session and have begun lobbying their colleagues to make sure slots aren't a part of any deal.

Waiting to mount an opposition campaign until a special session starts would be futile, he said.

"It's like trying to get on a train that left an hour ago," Anderson said. "It's already traveling 80 mph, and there's no way. Right now we're all in the station house, and trust me, there's folks calling each other and getting ready."

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