Budget brinksmanship continues in Annapolis

Negotiations to reach a final deal on the Maryland state budget were put off Saturday morning, raising new questions about whether the General Assembly can complete its work by the time it is scheduled to end its 90-day session Monday night.

The cancellation of the planned 8:30 a.m. meeting of the budget conference committees fell through just hours after a House subcommittee unveiled a plan to radically rewrite the Senate's bill to expand casino gambling in Maryland -- a move that would likely doom the legislation.

The casino bill, which would allow a sixth gambling site in the state and permit table games, is a favorite cause of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. House sources said the Senate canceled the meeting shortly after the House announced its gambling legislation plans.

Budget negotiators reportedly were getting close to a deal on the details of an income tax increase before the the meeting was canceled. One House leader said the deal could be wrapped up in an hour if and when the committees can get together. If the legislature can't reach a deal on the budget soon, it would trigger an extended session -- the first since the early 1990s.

Although it is unusually late in the session to be without a budget -- the only must-pass legislation under the Maryland Constitution -- there is still time to wrap up a deal and to adjourn Monday night if the two sides reach an agreement sometime Saturday. But that depends mostly on Miller and House SpeakerMichael E. Busch, both of whom have the power to bring negotiations to a halt.

Sources in the legislature said House leaders -- determined to pass a budget --  are still trying to craft a casino bill that can both satisfy the Senate president and win a majority in the House. The dilemma facing Busch is that the Senate bill includes a constitutional amendment calling for aPrince George's Countyreferendum that would require 85 votes to pass the House. House leaders do not believe they can get 85 votes for a plan that includes slots, so they have outlined plans for a casino at National Harbor  in Prince George's with table games only.

The problem with that is that slots are the big money-maker for any casino, making it difficult if not impossible to obtain financing for a facility with only table games. A lobbyist for National Harbor, W. Minor Carter, described the plan as "totally impractical."

Sen.  Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Senate budget conferees, said he was not sure which side called off the meeting but he confirmed that casino gambling was the issue that has snagged the talks. Kasemeyer said he is not sure how close the conferees are to reaching a budget deal. adding that it depends on the proposal the House team brings to the table.







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