Annapolis leaders considering two special sessions

PoliticsCasino and Gambling IndustryBudgets and BudgetingLifestyle and LeisureAnnapolisDemocratic Party

Gov. Martin O'Malley and top leaders of the General Assembly are considering the possibility of holding two special legislative sessions — one in May to deal with the state budget and another in summer to consider an expansion of casino gambling in Maryland.

O'Malley disclosed the possible plan Tuesday in Baltimore, shortly after he met in Annapolis with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to discuss the prospect of calling senators and delegates back to the capital to raise taxes and avert about $500 million in cuts to popular programs.

While the three leaders — all Democrats — reached no final agreement, the governor said that it was a cordial meeting and that progress had been made on resolving budget issues left over from the regular session, which ended April 9.

In separate interviews, both Miller and Busch said they were open to the idea of holding two special sessions. Busch said legislative leaders were looking at the week of May 14-18 as the most likely time for the special session on budget issues.

While the governor mentioned August as the likely time for a session dealing with casinos, the two presiding officers both said late July was also a possibility.

Busch appeared optimistic that legislative leaders would be able to work out their differences and avoid the cuts that would otherwise take effect July 1.

"If everybody keeps lines of communication open and continues to have a dialogue, we can work our way through this," Busch said. He said it is important to resolve the budget issues to avoid severe cuts to education, layoffs of state employees and steep tuition increases at Maryland's public colleges and universities.

But House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said there's no need for one special session — let alone two.

"It's a horrible idea. They've lost their minds," the Calvert County Republican said.

On the last night of the annual 90-day session, the legislature passed a "doomsday" budget with cuts that would have been avoided had the Assembly approved bills raising income taxes and shifting some of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties. Because the legislature failed to pass those measures before time ran out, the state budget includes cuts in the areas of K-12 schools, higher education and health that leading Democrats did not intend to take effect.

"We really want to resolve this budget issue," O'Malley said Tuesday. "This budget would do a lot of damage." The three leaders recognize that "we have to resolve it separate from the gaming issue," the governor said.

"When this issue of gaming becomes intertwined with the budget, it makes consensus very, very hard to find on either," he said.

Miller has strongly supported a proposal that would ask state voters to allow a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George's County, and to allow table games at all six. O'Malley and Busch have suggested that Miller allowed the revenue bills to fail because the gambling proposal appeared to be in trouble in the House.

The Senate president has insisted the issues were not linked, an assertion he repeated Tuesday. But he continued to defend a proposed casino at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George's, which he represents.

"It's not about me. It's about a billion-dollar investment. It's about 6,000 jobs," he said.

The governor said that if the Assembly were to pass legislation on gambling in August, there would be enough time to put a referendum — which would be expected as part of any gambling bill — on this fall's ballot.

According to O'Malley, he and the legislative leaders also discussed creating a commission to regulate aspects of gambling that are currently dealt with in legislation, an idea the governor favors. He said technical issues such as the "splits" of table games and slot machines should be decided by professionals instead of becoming "a jump ball in the General Assembly every two years."

Currently, the Maryland Lottery oversees some gambling-related issues while a separate commission oversees the locations where slot machines are permitted. O'Malley said he, Miller and Busch talked about consolidating control of casinos under one regulator.

Busch said he liked the idea, noting that New Jersey and Pennsylvania have a single commission that oversees casino gambling.

Miller and Busch also said they talked with the governor about conducting a study — whether by a consultant or an advisory panel — of the economic impacts of gambling expansion. The results would be delivered to the legislature before any special session on the topic.

The two legislative leaders, who have often clashed over gambling-related issues, both expressed support for such a study.

"We need people that understand the bottom line," Miller said. "We need people who understand economics."

Busch said he would feel more comfortable moving forward on gambling expansion if the legislature had expert, unbiased advice on casino-related issues.

"The question is how do you make these facilities competitive with the surrounding states," he said.

On the issues of taxes and the pension shift, O'Malley said the starting point should be the agreement the two chambers reached at the end of the regular session, though he suggested there could be further "adjustments and some tweaking."

"I think we were very close to having a budget we could live with," he said.

Miller has suggested reopening the deal reached by House and Senate conferees in the final hours of the session – a deal that was struck on terms that left many senators unsatisfied. But Busch said he doesn't expect many changes to a package that avoided tax increases on individuals making less than $100,000 and couples earning less than $150,000.

"That was a compromise everybody agreed to and signed off on," he said.

O'Malley said he hopes that this week a small group of House and Senate fiscal leaders and members of the governor's staff could meet to start hashing out the details — something Busch said was possible. The governor said the proposed first special session would have to be called soon because otherwise he would have to submit $130 million in budget cuts to the Board of Public Works at its May 23 meeting.

A mid-May session to resolve budget questions would also give local governments information on how much state aid to expect in time for them to make their own budget decisions by June 1.

While Democratic leaders have been talking about a special session since the gavel fell at midnight April 9, Republicans have opposed any move to bring legislators back to Annapolis, saying they prefer the budget the Assembly adopted with no new taxes.

O'Donnell said there's no need for a special session to raise taxes because the state already has a balanced budget. He also pointed to the cost of bringing lawmakers back to Annapolis, estimated by the Department of Legislative Services at about $21,000 a day.

"It's going to cost Marylanders an additional hundreds of thousands of dollars, not once but twice more," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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