An agreement on a special General Assembly session eluded lawmakers again this week, as legislative leaders quarreled over the origins of the state's budget stalemate.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has said he won't call a special session until a budget deal is reached, met separately with House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach this week.
“The second we have consensus, we'll have a session,” O'Malley told reporters after meeting with Miller and other senators Tuesday.
The legislature ended its regular session April 9 before approving a tax package to accompany the fiscal 2012 budget, prompting calls for a special session to avoid $500 million in cuts included in the state's default spending plan.
O'Malley said the discussions would continue, but as of deadline Thursday no agreement had been reached, and there were signs of a widening rift between Busch and Miller.
In a letter sent to senators Monday, Miller rejected criticism that his support for expanding gaming into Prince George's County had derailed budget negotiations.
“I in no way sought to involve any gaming issue into the fiscal year 2013 budget debate,” he wrote.
Miller also criticized the House for failing to act on the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, or BRFA, and Busch himself for trying to extend the session “based on a never before identified or used provision of the constitution.”
Busch dismissed those claims in a meeting with reporters Thursday.
Without the revenue portion of the budget package, which did not gain approval in either chamber, passing the BRFA would have increased the burden on local jurisdictions by shifting the cost of teach pensions onto the counties, Busch said.
And although the House did pass a resolution late on Sine Die to extend the session, the provisions for doing so are made “crystal clear” in the state constitution, and the Senate had “every opportunity” to pass the same measure, Busch said. “This was not a surprise,” he said.
Stakeholders and legislators this week made the case both for and against a special session in Annapolis.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, said that although the budget that passed was different from what they would have written, it was balanced, and lawmakers should accept it.
O'Donnell and several of his fellow House Republicans rejected the “doomsday” characterization of the $35.4 billion budget, noting that in it spending “increases by nearly $700 million over last year's budget.”
Nonprofit groups, however, urged lawmakers to return and pass a revenue package, arguing that more than $500 million in cuts included in the doomsday budget would be catastrophic.
“Cuts to schools [mean] larger class sizes” said Henry Bogdan, policy director for Maryland Nonprofits, which advocates for the state's nonprofit organizations, at a news conference Wednesday hosted by the Maryland State Education Association.
Cuts to social service providers could mean thousands of layoffs, and reductions in university funding could lead to a steep tuition hike, Bogdan said.
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, argued that the legislature's failure to pass a revenue package also put lives at risk, because it killed tax increases for some tobacco products.
Both the House and Senate agreed that the tax on little cigars would have increased from 15 percent to 70 percent, while the tax on smokeless tobacco would have gone from 15 to 30 percent, according to DeMarco. Lawmakers should enact the increases during a special session, he said.
“Maryland needs to do what it's always done, which is take the lead in saving our kids,” DeMarco said.
But not everyone agrees that a special session is needed.