Final day? Many issues still hanging for Assembly, foremost the budget

A lengthy roster of high-profile bills remains unresolved as the General Assembly begins what is supposed to be the final day of its 2012 session: Offshore wind power. A doubling of the so-called "flush tax." The future of gambling in Maryland.

But really, it's all about the budget.

First and foremost, Maryland lawmakers are coming in Monday hoping they can break a stalemate between the Senate and House and pass a budget in the roughly 16 hours of legislating that remain in their regular 90-day session.

If they do, the majority leaders of the two chambers will rise about midnight and make a motion to adjourn. If they don't, lawmakers face the dreaded prospect — and taxpayers the extra expense — of an extended session.

Veteran lawmakers say there's still time to get the job done if the conference committees on a package of budget-related bills — especially a measure raising income taxes — can reach agreement early in the day.

But on a sunny Easter Sunday, the State House remained quiet, and there was little activity to be seen around the government complex in Annapolis except for children playing on the lawn of the governor's mansion.

Officially, what separates the two chambers is $58 million out of a roughly $35 billion budget. That's the difference between the Senate's plan for an income tax increase and the House approach. Solve that, and all the other remaining issues would fall into place, lawmakers said.

Hanging over the budget deliberations is a bill favored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that would call a referendum on a proposal to allow a sixth casino in Maryland. Miller hasn't explicitly threatened to hold up the budget talks unless he can get the House to go along with his plan, but he has said he doesn't know whether one issue can be settled without agreement on the other.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, one of the few people working in a near-empty State House, chuckled when asked if there were signs of progress.

"Lots of fireworks tomorrow. Stay tuned," he said.

He and a few members of the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that handles gambling and income tax issues, met in the House office building last night.

Afterward Busch would not discuss how the House might respond to the Senate's latest gambling proposal except to say "we have a lot of questions about it." He said the casino issue should not be allowed to hold up approval of a budget.

"In my view, it should have been settled days ago," said Busch, an Annapolis Democrat. He said the House conferees would be in Annapolis Monday morning prepared to talk as early as 7:30.

Under the Maryland Constitution, the Assembly is charged with approving a budget for the coming fiscal year. If that does not happen by midnight, legislative leaders will have to arrange for an extended session to pass a budget. That last happened in 1992.

Lined up behind the budget is a long list of bills from the trivial to significant. While the budget negotiators haggle, lawmakers will vote on as many of them as they can move to the floor. If a budget deal is reached, everything else will be swept aside as Miller and Busch ram the package through.

Among the other issues hanging in the balance are some of Gov. Martin O'Malley's top priorities.

A bill doubling the "flush tax" — the $2.50-a-month fee on water usage that finances sewage treatment projects to protect the Chesapeake Bay — has been approved by both chambers, but they must agree on amendments before the bill can go to the governor.

The governor's initiative to encourage development of an offshore wind power industry near Ocean City is down to its last breath as the administration struggles to find the votes to let it emerge from a Senate committee.

Legislation that would require counties to take steps to limit the spread of large developments on septic systems — a measure designed to curb bay pollution and sprawl — is on the verge of passage but requires one more vote for final approval.

A bill setting out rules for the formation of public-private partnerships to finance big-ticket projects is poised to come out of the Senate. The Senate scrapped a much-criticized House amendment that sought to expedite court challenges to such deals. If the House insists on keeping that language, the bill's prospects are dim.

Also pending is an important measure that would require many of Maryland's larger counties and Baltimore city to assess fees to raise money to improve their storm water systems.

Almost certainly dead are all of O'Malley's alternative plans to raise money for highways and transit. With the income tax and flush tax increases on their plates, lawmakers have had no appetite for plans to increase the gas or sales taxes.

Many bills have been passed by both houses but with differences in the details. Unless one chamber agrees to another's language, a conference committee is named. If those small groups of senators and delegates can't cut a deal in time, the bills die at midnight.

The Assembly already has passed significant legislation this session.

In March, the House by a narrow margin joined the Senate in approving same-sex marriage — a measure that will almost certainly be petitioned to a November referendum.

Later in the month, the two chambers agreed on legislation that will require counties to keep up a minimum level of spending on education — called maintenance of effort — or risk having their income tax revenues sent directly to their local school boards.

Over the weekend lawmakers gave final approval to a ban on arsenic in chicken feed — the first in the nation.

The Assembly also approved O'Malley's bill setting up health exchanges to prepare Maryland for an expansion of care under President Obama's Affordable Care Act – if the Supreme Court doesn't strike down the federal law.