Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders reported progress Wednesday toward their goal of bringing legislators back to Annapolis for a special session to avert more than $500 million in budget cuts.
Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's press secretary, said it is likely that lawmakers will reconvene May 14 for what is expected to be a brief session limited to budget issues.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch both said the chambers have made headway, though there is no agreement on the details of legislation to raise taxes to avoid the cuts.
Miller asked members of his Democratic caucus to set aside May 14 and 15 — and possibly part of the next day — for what he hopes will be a two-days-and-out special session. Busch was planning to consult with members of his House leadership Thursday before fixing a date.
Guillory said the leaders, all Democrats, expect a relatively short session. She said "conversations are ongoing" to reach a budget deal to which leading lawmakers agree before senators and delegates return to Annapolis.
The legislature's majority Democrats are seeking to avoid cuts contained in the "doomsday budget" set to take effect July 1. To do that, they hope to revive several revenue measures, including a bill to raise income taxes, that died the last night of the regular session.
Some senators have expressed interest in makings changes to a tax agreement that was struck on the last night of the session, but House leaders have insisted that a deal's a deal — and several Democratic senators said Wednesday that they could live with that result.
Miller emphasized that he expects a special session this month would deal with budget issues only — not casino gambling — though the three men have talked about a possible second special session this summer devoted to gambling.
"We're focused on the budget situation right now," Miller said after meeting with his caucus for nearly two hours Wednesday morning. He did not definitively rule out a discussion of gambling during a May session, but he acknowledged that the House wants more time to gather information.
Miller pledged that the issue of expanding gambling — which he continued to promote Wednesday — would not interfere with budget discussions. He has been pushing for legislation that would authorize a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George's County, and to allow table games in addition to slot machines at all six.
He said he has asked Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the Senate's budget conferees, to arrange a meeting as soon as possible with his House counterparts to discuss how to reconcile the two chambers' approaches to the budget.
A majority of Senate Democrats attended Wednesday's caucus. They were joined at their closed-door meeting by three top O'Malley aides: Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster, chief of staff Matt Gallagher and chief legislative officer Joseph Bryce. Democrats hold 35 seats in the 47-member Senate.
When this year's regular 90-day session ended at midnight April 9, the two chambers had failed to take action on key revenue measures — including one to raise income taxes and another to shift some of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties. As a result, the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 contains about $500 million in cuts that the Democrats never intended to make.
O'Malley and Busch have suggested that Miller allowed time to run out because he wanted passage of his gambling bill; Miller has recently denied it.
Democratic leaders want to reverse the cuts from O'Malley's budget proposal because they would come largely in areas they consider critical: K-12 schools, higher education, Medicaid and law enforcement grants to local governments.
Republicans have opposed a special session, saying the doomsday plan still amounts to a $700 million spending increase over this year's budget.
On the final day of the regular session, leaders from the two chambers agreed to an income tax plan that grew out of a House proposal. The deal was to raise taxes on individuals making more than $100,000 and couples earning $150,000 or more. Many senators had favored a more broad-based approach.
Miller recently suggested reopening the conference committee negotiations to seek a new compromise, but senators said Wednesday that they do not expect major changes to the deal their negotiators signed April 9.
"The essence of it will reflect what we negotiated at the end of the last session," said Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat who participated in the budget conference. "We don't want to spend the taxpayers' dollars on a session that is not productive."
Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he couldn't see any reason why the Senate would balk at a deal close to what was on the table that night. "My guess is that there may be some tweaks to it," he said.
Busch reiterated Wednesday that he expects to pick up with the agreement Senate negotiators signed during the waning hours of the session. Asked whether there was room for any tweaks, he replied, "Not that anyone's entertained up to now."