O'Malley crusades for session

The Baltimore Sun

SALISBURY -- Despite pushback against a special session from members of his own party, Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he intends to move forward with plans to call one for early November.

"I think we have to," he told reporters after a budget presentation at Salisbury University. "I think it would be irresponsible not to try."

O'Malley also said he could support a referendum on slot machine gambling, an idea that some lawmakers have started to discuss privately as an alternative to including slots in the governor's proposal to address the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

"It's certainly more palatable to many members of the legislature to let the people decide," O'Malley said of a referendum, adding, "I'm open to anything that will help us achieve a consensus for Maryland's future."

The Salisbury event had all the trappings of a pep rally, one designed to fan public support for O'Malley's budget, which has not received a rousing endorsement from the General Assembly. The school mascot, Sammy the Seagull, escorted the Democratic governor into a wood-paneled hall where 150 people had gathered to hear O'Malley present the basics of his budget.

Shirtsleeves rolled up and using a PowerPoint presentation, O'Malley offered details: slots, a sales tax increase, a rejiggering of the state income tax to put a bigger burden on wealthier residents, an increase in the corporate income tax rate from 7 percent to 8 percent, closing corporate loopholes, and a property tax reduction, among other elements.

The governor said that some in Annapolis have said the package is too complicated.

"It's not too complicated," he said. "I was a C student. I was."

O'Malley has spent much of the last week behind closed doors with lawmakers, seeking their input on the budget proposal and urging them, sources say, to agree to a special session. The governor has argued that the longer state officials wait to tackle the deficit, the larger it will grow -- by $80 million a month, by O'Malley's estimate.

The event represented the latest effort by the governor to take his plea to the public, a tactic he used when unveiling his proposal last month. O'Malley appealed to the students, officials, educators and residents gathered at Salisbury to understand that his budget was not crafted "cavalierly."

"It's something I've chosen to propose to you as your servant," he said.

Still, House Speaker Michael E. Busch has expressed concern about moving hastily toward a special session without giving members the opportunity to digest the details of O'Malley's plans. The speaker, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, also had said that the public needs ample opportunity to offer feedback during the budget process.

Busch, a slots opponent, said discussion of a slots referendum isn't new, noting efforts in 2004, when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller tried to broker a deal with him and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to put the issue on the ballot.

"I think a referendum makes the legislature and the governor put the best product on the ballot because the general public can scrutinize it and see if there's any unjust enrichment or entitlement, and they get to go to the polls and vote it up or down," he said.

Busch also said a referendum gives "security" to Maryland residents that if a majority supports legalizing slot machine gambling, there can't be expansion unless the General Assembly takes action.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican who was on hand for O'Malley's presentation, said he thinks the referendum is a fine idea. He said it would put an end to the feuding between Busch and Miller, a slots supporter.

"I'm certainly in favor of letting the ... people decide because it's an issue the Maryland General Assembly has been unable to decide five years in a row," Colburn said.

But Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who has voted for slots previously but said last week that his caucus would not back a slots bill during a special session, referred yesterday to a referendum as a "bad idea."

"People were elected to go down there and make some decisions and cast some votes," he said. "There is no way that a referendum question will have the minutiae that a slots bill entails."

Brinkley said slots opponents generally are in favor of a referendum because "they want to delay it and pervert the message."

Joining O'Malley yesterday were: James A. Perdue, chairman and CEO of Perdue Farms Inc.; Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt; Del. Norman H. Conway; and Chancellor William E. Kirwan of the University System of Maryland, among other Cabinet and state officials.

Pollitt thanked the governor for wading into the budget battle and urged lawmakers of both parties to avoid politicizing a financial issue that affects all residents. "We're citizens," he said. "We need to fight this and overcome this as citizens."

"Godspeed," he wished O'Malley.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com james.drew@baltsun.com

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