Assembly shifts attention from love to money

The first 45 days of the General Assembly session were dominated by talk of marriage. The theme for the second half is shaping up to be money — and there's not enough of it.

Thursday's Senate vote approving same-sex marriage in Maryland came on the eve of the halfway point of the annual 90-day session. Now legislators are turning their attention to the budget, and how exactly they will close a projected $1 billion deficit.

"It feels like we are starting a second session," said Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat.

Gov.Martin O'Malley said the budget "could well be" more controversial than his bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

One thing is clear: There's little love for the governor's budget plan, which would increase income taxes paid by anyone making more than $100,000 and shift half the costs of teacher pensions to local governments. There's outright hostility for the governor's separate proposal to apply the sales tax to gasoline to fund transportation projects.

Also pending are environmental initiatives by O'Malley, a Democrat, to promote an offshore wind industry, increase the water usage fee known as the "flush tax" and to curb the growth of large developments dependent on septic systems.

And the wild card: There is a proposal to expand gambling to Prince George's County and to allow table games such as poker at the state's existing casinos.

But all are taking their place in line behind the budget, which under Maryland's Constitution must be balanced.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says that his chamber is readying a spending plan — a so-called "doomsday budget" — that closes the $1 billion gap with about $500 million in additional cuts to O'Malley's plan.

Making reductions of that magnitude can come only from two places — the education of children and health care for the poor. Such cuts would take the place of bringing in more revenue through tax increases.

Miller, a Democrat who represents parts of Calvert and Prince George's counties, said the message to senators will be something like this: "If you don't want to vote for revenues, you're going to have to vote for these cuts."

Any votes to avoid such cuts by raising taxes will almost certainly have to come from Democrats. There appears to be no support for additional taxes on the Republican side in either the Senate or the House of Delegates.

Miller, a longtime advocate of increased transportation revenue, now says the Senate won't turn its attention to the governor's gas tax proposal until the budget is wrapped up. He said the same goes for the flush tax.

He said his main concern is finishing the session in its scheduled 90 days with a budget in hand.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said his leadership team is looking at a broad array of possibilities. One option seems off the table, he said, in that Miller has all but ruled out any increases or broadening of the sales tax. "You've got to work on a collaborative effort," Busch said.

Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said the House is considering a combination of taxes and fees along with additional cuts with an eye toward protecting K-12 education, higher education and health care.

"I don't think it will come down to all cuts," he said.

In contrast with some past years, Busch said there have been productive consultations between Senate and House fiscal leaders.

"There's been a very open dialogue with the Senate, and it's been appreciated certainly by our side," he said.

Sen.Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, illustrated the dilemma last week. On the one hand, he's leading the Senate's effort to find cuts. But when he spoke to a group of disabled people last week — some in wheelchairs, others with crutches and braces — he promised to protect the new money allocated in O'Malley's budget proposal for reducing the waiting list for care.

"The last few years have been tight," said Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties. "The governor's done a good job this year for all of you. … That money will stay in the budget for you this year."

In an interview, Kasemeyer gave O'Malley, a Democrat, credit for addressing head-on the state's roughly $1 billion revenue shortfall, noting that the governor's budget meets the legislature's "spending affordability" goals. But he said the governor's plan to close $240 million of the gap next year by shifting some of the state's teacher pension costs to the counties is meeting resistance.

"We feel the pressure to phase in the pensions for the counties' sake," Kasemeyer said, "but when you do that, you lose $160 million," he said. "Therefore you need something else."

The Senate has taken a leading role in pushing for the pension shift, but Busch signaled that the House may be coming around to the upper chamber's view that there should be some "shared liability in pensions."

Busch indicated that a shift, which is being fought by county executives from six of the state's seven largest counties, could begin this year but may have to be phased in.

"If it doesn't happen this year, it's highly unlikely to happen in future legislative sessions," Busch said.

Busch seemed to pour cold water on the possibility of any gas tax increase this year. Because that revenue would fund transportation and capital projects, the gas tax proposal is separate from work on the operating budget.

"I think our focus is totally on the budget right now. That's the one constitutional issue you've got to accomplish," Busch said.

He said there is "no enthusiasm" in the House for O'Malley's gas tax proposal.

At the beginning of the session, Busch said that in order to  secure any increase in transportation revenue, leading county executives and other local elected officials would have to come to Annapolis to sell lawmakers on the need.

Now, halfway through the session, Busch said he hasn't seen any evidence of that happening, adding that county officials appear to be preoccupied with the teacher pension issue.

The administration hasn't abandoned the gas tax effort just yet. On Friday, the governor's chief of staff, Matthew D. Gallagher, and Deputy Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley briefed the Prince George's County House delegation on the proposal and received feedback from delegates about constituents' demands to get stalled transportation projects moving.

Gallagher said that while the budget is "always Issue No. 1," the administration is still pushing the gas tax and other initiatives with price tags.

"There's plenty of evidence of the governor's and General Assembly's ability to tackle multiple issues in the course of a legislative session," Gallagher said.

Still, the difficulty of reaching agreement on the hard choices was illustrated by the reaction to Sen. Bill Ferguson's ceremonial Presidents Day address on the life of George Washington.

Ferguson, a freshman Democrat from Baltimore, told a tale from history about how, early in his term, the Father of His Country stared down armed rebels fighting against an alcohol tax.

"We face our own modern challenges. We face our own Whiskey Rebellions," Ferguson said.

His colleagues applauded, but were not sold.

Baltimore County Sen. James Brochin and BaltimoreSen. Catherine Pugh, both Democrats, had the same comment Monday night:

"Nice speech. I'm still not voting for tax increases."