GOP told to pick cuts or back off

Baltimore Sun

It has come to this: Election-year tension over Maryland's budget predicament has grown so intense that Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on how to talk about the problem.

The General Assembly's top fiscal leaders want Republican lawmakers to gather for an unusual meeting next week to discuss programs that could be reduced or eliminated. Weary of being criticized for irresponsible spending, House and Senate leaders want Republicans to outline exactly where to trim the state's $13 billion general fund budget.

"They never tell you exactly what they will cut," said Speaker Michael E. Busch. "Here is your opportunity."

But Republicans in the Senate called the invitation disingenuous, and said they wouldn't accept. For budget talks to be productive, they said, lawmakers from both parties should be included.

So Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opened the meeting to all senators. But Republicans remain skeptical about its purpose.

Democrats are "not interested in getting our opinions," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a former minority leader from the Eastern Shore. "They are interested in using our opinions as political fodder."

That leading lawmakers in Annapolis would spend so much time debating how to debate the budget says much about the current climate in the state capital.

The terms of all 188 members of the Assembly expire this year, and election-year anxiety is suppressing debate on the most contentious issues.

Legislators from both parties know that if they accept a budget proposal from Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley that is heavy on tapping reserve accounts and other one-time fixes, they are papering over a persistent gap between revenue and expenditures for another year.

Democrats who control both chambers are leery of voter backlash in the fall if programs are cut too deeply. Republicans fear tax increases next year, after the election. Neither party seems willing to work with the other.

Still, the prospect of a Republican-dominated hearing to lay out budget solutions has many in the capital curious.

"This is a first," said Warren G. Deschenaux, the top fiscal adviser to the legislature. "Given its extraordinary status, I'll attend to observe because I should know what comes up."

Democrats say they scheduled the session because Republicans have complained that they have been excluded from budget negotiations.

"Deals are being cut out of the public eye," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland, who added that the proposed hearing was "political stunt-making" and "an extraordinary departure from the normal process."

O'Donnell suggested in a letter sent Friday that the hearing should include a "thorough public vetting" of Democratic ideas, which he predicted would "have the effect of locking in future tax increases."

Maryland's budget process is driven by the governor, who must submit a spending plan that balances revenue and spending. Lawmakers don't draft a plan of their own; instead, they can make cuts to programs, but are generally prevented from adding expense items unless they identify the money for them.

Though the Senate Republican leaders say they won't offer a single unified proposal at the meeting, they bristle at the contention that they've lacked substantive ideas on how to reduce the budget. They've offered good ideas in the past, they say, and might revive or revise them this year.

Republicans frequently point to a 2007 proposal from Stoltzfus to cap the state share of teacher pension costs at $555 million. The idea was defeated along party lines. Since then the pension cost has grown to $916 million and Democrats are now talking about adapting some form of Stoltzfus' plan at some point - but not this year.

Stoltzfus' proposal also limited the growth in funding for K-12 education and community colleges and deferred some capital programs.

The same ideas might not work this year, he acknowledged. Stoltzfus said most obvious places for cuts include education and Medicaid eligibility. "The problem is, it is a political year," he said. "The governor and the legislature will not want to cut any of those things."

Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, points to his 2008 suggestion of a $100 million across-the-board cut for all state programs. It also would have deferred spending on new programs for three years.

Miller, the Senate leader, denied that the meeting was designed with partisan motives.

"Everything we do here is political," Miller candidly told senators. "We are elected officials. We are political beings.

"But this is serious," he said as he announced last week that Democrats should also come. "I want to open up to everybody. Everybody. Say how you feel it should be cut. I certainly don't think it should be just the Republican caucus."

Across the State House, Busch had a different view, insisting that the hearing be narrowly focused on Republican ideas and thus raising the awkward possibility that the gathering will include senators from both parties but only Republican delegates.

Busch has long sought more details about where Republican lawmakers want to cut, pointing to a December meeting of a panel that recommends state spending levels where Republicans tried unsuccessfully to freeze the budgets of all state programs. The idea would have required O'Malley to fill a budget gap of $3 billion, or $1 billion more than the hole O'Malley has plugged.

"If they believe that so firmly it is their job to cut $3 billion, here is your opportunity," Busch said explaining his vision for the hearing.

Republicans also complain that their ideas are frequently rejected on a straight party line vote, evidence, they say, that the Democrats are unwilling to listen to them.

O'Donnell pointed to a floor fight last week where his caucus was thwarted in its effort to amend an otherwise noncontroversial measure rejecting pay raises for lawmakers to include a change in the legislative pension system.

The effort, led by Republican Del. William J. Frank of Towson, would have placed lawmakers in the same retirement program as most state employees, who he said receive fewer benefits than lawmakers.

The full House never voted on the amendment, in part because Frank says he missed a brief time window on the floor for offering it. Republicans tried again Friday to raise the issue on the floor, but failed, along a mostly party line vote.

O'Donnell said the maneuvering is part of a larger pattern by the Democrats to shut out his caucus' ideas.

Busch dismissed the episode as pure posturing. The Republicans, he said, are well aware of how the legislative process is supposed to work. "They could have offered that at the public hearing," Busch said. "They had every opportunity."

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