Blair Lee: Who won, the House or the Senate? How do you pick a winner when there's no final score yet? -- Gazette.Net


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How do you recap a baseball game that's still in extra innings? How do you pick winners and losers when there's no final score yet?

Right now, the House and Senate teams are tied at the top of the 10th with House Speaker Mike Busch pitching to Senate President Mike Miller who's behind, 0 and 2, with two outs and nobody on. Gov. Martin O'Malley is doing TV interviews in the press box where, asked which team he's backing, replies, “Who's playing?”

In this high-profile, high-stakes showdown the smart money says Miller blinks first. Not because he can't take the heat (which has reached the boiling point), but because the only thing more precious to Mike Miller than gambling legislation is protecting his position as president of the Senate.

The heat on Miller has grown merciless: the media, labor unions, the state employees, Busch, O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot, etc., all blame Miller for triggering the so-called doomsday spending cuts by holding an income tax bill hostage until he gets his gambling bill (a new P.G. County gaming casino and table games for all six gambling venues).

Miller loves playing hardball; he started in the State House as a page back in 1966. So attacking Miller is a waste of time. But attacking his senators is how to make Mike Miller fold.

Every January the Senate elects its president. Miller has won that election for more than a quarter century by cajoling, browbeating, charming and rewarding a majority of fellow senators into whose re-election campaigns he also pours thousands of dollars. He re-elects them, they re-elect him -- sweet.

But the $512 million doomsday spending cuts strike at the heart of the Democratic Party's core constituency: teachers, state employees, students, Prince George's County and Baltimore city, low-income earners and liberals (aka “progressives”). And all those folks are pressuring Miller's senators.

Everybody agrees that a legislative special session is necessary to replace the doomsday cuts by passing the income tax increases. But Miller still wants his gambling bill passed, too: so, no gambling bill, no tax bill, no special session.

But Speaker Busch has come up with a nasty fastball that has Miller stumped. To persuade the state's five existing gambling venues to accept a new, competitive venue in nearby P.G. County, Miller is not only giving the existing slots operators table games, he's also reducing the state's tax on their slots revenues from 67 percent to 60 percent.

So, asks Busch, how can we progressive Democrats justify lowering taxes on gambling operators while we're raising taxes on state taxpayers? Steeerike!

Miller's game of “chicken” will quickly end when enough of Miller's senators run to him terrified at losing their next election. To save them (and his presidency) Miller will compromise.

Then, the question becomes, what will that compromise look like? Will the special session include some kind of gambling bill? How about other failed bills? And having caved in to the House on the terms of the income tax hike, will Miller and the Senate now revert to their original version (the Senate wants to tax all incomes over $3,000; the House wants to only tax incomes over $100,000)?

Meanwhile, Maryland lawmakers aren't the only ones playing extra-innings hardball. In the free world across the Potomac, where there's actually a two-party system, Virginia Democrats held the state budget hostage for more than a month until the Republicans added more spending. But, when the Democrats held out for an extra $300 million for Dulles Metro construction, a Democratic senator joined the Republicans and the budget finally passed.

And Congress, in permanent deadlock, is holding the nation hostage and hasn't passed a budget in three years.

Back in Maryland it's not too early to declare at least one clear-cut winner -- the K-12 education lobby.

During the session, the teachers unions and school boards hit a grand slam: The new “maintenance of effort” law protects them, for perpetuity, against any local education spending cuts despite competing local spending needs or voter-imposed tax/spending caps. State lawmakers have transformed local school spending into a sacred cow.

Think of local education budgets as now being on a lifelong diet where they can only gain weight, never lose an ounce. True, local elected officials can ask the state school board for a waiver during a fiscal crisis, but the state school board is the education lobby: Asking them to cut school spending is like asking Baskin-Robbins to go off your diet. Fat chance (no pun intended).

And the education lobby won, again, when the legislature upped the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 years old. This artificially balloons high school enrollments, triggering an extra $54 million in state aid primarily to Baltimore and PG County.

But, because the state only calculates enrollments based on who shows up in September, the schools won't actually have to educate these kids, who will quickly disappear after serving their purpose of generating more state aid.

As for the other winners (and losers), we'll have to wait until the last out.

Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is blair@leedg.com.