Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Waiting In Annapolis

(Annapolis) The trio of state leaders who have the power to convene a special session met for breakfast this morning (little more than an hour) with little to show.
There were smiles and few comments except for Speaker Michael Busch who said he had to meet with the leadership of the House to craft a budget. The subject of slots was broached to the speaker but he said, “that was not a part of the discussion.” It’s been two weeks since the session has adjourned and the charges and counter have been heard around the state. This is all about saving face. The governor wants to show leadership; the Speaker wants show he can control a deeply divided body; and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants to prove the slots issue is a winning issue. Can these three issues be resolved or are they incompatible?
As President Miller went to his office he was surrounded press who wanted to know about a potential sales tax? “Shh!!! Miller has not been portrayed kindly in this “who did what” post session coverage. As the longest serving state leader he is often the go to guy but today he was saying little.  

The Clock is Ticking

The pain of the budget has yet to be felt, but county leaders are aware time is not on their side. There were conflicting times on when to bring back the legislature. Speaker Busch was suggesting the special session convene “at the end the May.” Meanwhile. President Miller suggest “mid-May” may be a better time. The time of the session is crucial to getting the state on track before the new fiscal year. T. Eloise Foster, the Budget Secretary, has already talked to Governor about delaying the signing to several bills passed by the legislature. At the county level the pressure to cut in the wake of any cuts is as thick as fog. Some like Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is waiting, he's preparing his on doomsday scenario.  

Absent From the Conversation

The governor left his talking points to his communication officer, Rich Abbruzzese. "I thought it was a good meeting but as to details you'll have to get with the presiding officers." Where is the urgency? Does anyone know what's a stake? I have said from the beginning the governor wants communities to "feel the pain." I don't know if that bring them back but it will not stop those from chiming in on the good, bad and ugly of a Special Session in the State of Maryland.  

"What's for Breakfast" 

 A question for some of us in "the pit" was what was on the breakfast menu. Haven't gotten word yet. Some suggested if this was a truly Maryland breakfast it would likely include eggs, toast and scrapple (for those of you who don't know it's a bacon substitute - various parts of pork product squished together and fried), sorry grits while a southern delicacy is more southern. It was also suggested they dined on goat cheese omelets -please-not in these austere times. The actual menu was assorted fruits muffins and pastries. Huevos rancheros (eggs, beans, spicy sausage), and assorted fruit juices with coffee.  

Last Minute Add

When I saw the possibility of two session expressed in a twitter post I was like what? Well guess what sometimes fiction is fact. The governor during a press gaggle in Baltimore suggested the need for two sessions one on the budget and another on the slots.
"Well lordy be the funks on me."..Parliament-Funkadelic.

You can listen hear.



Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Funny Thing Happen on the Way to Sine Die

(Annapolis) What is normally a joyous occasion turned to cynical politics on the last day of the Maryland Legislative Session (4/9/12). Forget my earlier Blog post. Things were moving rapidly as the countdown to Sine Die commenced on Monday. There were a number of strange happenings with dueling press conferences, failed/successful negotiations, and on the morning after there is a budget, but no mechanism to pay for it and nearly 7 million dollars short.

The situation for the state moves to the Doomsday Budget scenario with 512 million dollars in cuts coming touching every state agency. It didn’t take long for the criticism.

Speaker Mike Busch had charged the Senate President Mike Miller was holding the budget hostage by saying doing a deal on slots in Prince Georges County was the key to budget deal. The animosity between the pair seemed to be calculated on who would blink first. Time however was not on anyone’s side. House Majority Leader Kumar Barve said as much when he suggested any budget deal had to be struck by 7:00 pm because “it must be printed according to Maryland Law.”

There didn’t seem to be any urgency on anyone’s part. The two chambers suggested on Sine Die they would not return until 5 pm. It was clear a race to the finish was on.

Side Issues

The Prince Georges County decision to seek slots was a long shot. But when you have the President of Senate backing you anything is possible. More than 35 years of experience by President Miller is always a plus. That is until you bring the Delegates from Prince Georges County.

There was a reason the House insisted the introduction of expansion of gaming go through the constitution in 2004. It’s not easy to change the constitution, and language in the original bill says local jurisdictions must approve measures. This is a poison pill and was definitely on display this session. There are some in the Delegation who see the introduction of a casino in the Southern Maryland region as a pariah. Leading its opposition is a number of mega churches with Sen. Anthony Muse their appointed leader in the legislature.

Conversely, there are those who want to bring slots to Prince Georges County to shore up finances. The leader on this side is County Executive, Rushern Baker. Baker has backed a plan to bring gaming to National Harbor. He needs the revenue and has touted 691 million dollars it would bring to county.

To most political observers it was strange to see the introduction of a sixth casino in the state driving the session on the last day. It also caused concern in both likely and unlikely places. Conservatives and Black clergy have joined forces on this issue. Joining this group are Anne Arundel and Baltimore legislators who are worried about the introduction of a new gaming facility before there casino’s come online. Each asks a simple question, “Are their enough game players to support three gaming venues?”

To make this happen you’ll need a number deals. First up, give them all table games, change the revenue splits, and expand the potential bidders for the sixth statewide venue. Second, placate legislators whose votes you need. Lastly, marry unlikely legislators to deliver the votes you need.

As the leader of the House Speaker Busch has a difficult task and will depend on the House Whips to do the counting. Late Monday night the deal to deliver this legislation was mixed and by 11:30pm they did not have the votes.

So why was this not just a hic-up, but a monumental failure? These duel track pieces of legislation the budget and gaming became intertwining to leave the 2012 session as one for the record books.

Budget Issues

It started when legislators return from the Easter break with no clear path to break a budget impasse. The sticking point came with who to tax to make up for a structural deficit. The initial plan was impose a several high income earning individuals with additional taxes; there was also a plan to shed teacher pensions to counties and cities. To fund shortfalls in the transportation fund there was a push from the governor impose a gas tax – it was going nowhere fast with high gas prices.

Senate which was to grappled with the budget first. They tossed the governor’s plan and crafted their own. It began with an idea to tax high income earners in the state but evolved to tax everyone to bring in needed revenue. They also didn’t want to pass along teacher pensions to the counties not all at once, but gradually. They worked out the many differences and passed the measure hoping the house would just accept their budget.

The House meanwhile wasn’t concurring and agreed to go to a conference committee to work out their differences. This is normally a formality but there were a lot of sticking points. Negotiations seem to going the House’s way until the Easter weekend. This left just one day to make it work.

Making matters worst is this tactic understanding from Senate President Miller. “there is no budget deal without the House moving a gambling bill.” The Speaker said as much following adjournment of the morning session with his body not returning until 5 pm. Majority leader suggest any budget had to be printed by 7 pm.

Cynically, I suggested to those in the pit, we start a pool on when the budget would be done. We never launched the initiative after admonishment from Maryland Reporter Editor, Len Lazarick.


Most of the legislative motions were set. The Budget Conference committee had to cut a deal. This wasn’t done until both Houses were gaveled back in session after 6 pm (the deal was made near 10:00pm).

The other cog in this wheel was the House Ways and Means Committee who dealt with slots. The final deal wasn’t revealed in committee until 5 pm with an hour debate. Once again it’s finished at 6 pm.

The final piece of gaming left the committee with little assurances it would pass the entire body. The numbers told the tale. They didn't have the votes and Delegations like Baltimore City had meet earlier and tried exacting additionally funding for City schools.

In a word, unraveling. Deals were also made to the Baltimore County Delegation and their still weren't enough votes.

Alternate Plan

The Senate was in the middle of filibuster and was awaiting word from the House as to how revenue (taxes) was going to come in to pay for the budget.

The House was running out of time. A plan was hatch to extend the session to deal this problem and solve the gambling problem. It took 45 minutes of debate to and by this time there was literally 5 minutes left. The bigger problem the Senate was not taking up similar legislation.

So at the stoke of midnight the presiding announced Sine Die with no balloons or confetti, just the start of dueling press conferences.

The House and Senate leaders were calling on the governor to hold a Special Session but he was having none of it.

Post Session

The presiding officers showed up the signing ceremony and when they arrive they did not make eye contact. The governor called the session a "failed opportunity" reiterating what he said earlier in morning. The Senate President refuted the failure claim and suggested the Speaker had the more difficult task in getting his members to agree (what a snub). The Speaker in not so rye humor used a football analogy, "you can't win the game if you don't have the football."

These comments seemed pale when my colleague from Maryland Public Television, Lou Davis, shouted a question, "What about a special session, governor?" Flippantly, the governor suggest he never said anything about a special session.

The bluster subsided and now it's about putting together a plan to balance the budget and get it paid for. The governor has reached out to various legislative members. The ball is in his court.

His options are simple, let the legislature work out their differences and give him a bill, wait for schools and counties to shout unfair and then proceed, or leave everything to chance and work out the problems via the Board of Public Works (I doubt he'll take this option).

Keep watching as I keep posting.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Down to the Wire

(Annapolis) – For most of this Maryland Legislative session it’s been about the budget and on Sine Die night, it’s still about the budget. The state has a structural shortfall. To remedy this various gimmicks, and revenue enhancements (i.e. taxes) were floated. The Governor who gets the first say, offered up a number of ideas. He couched his position around the idea we “must maintain” the states number one school rating. Also he used this to expand the idea around green energy (windmills off Ocean City) and clean up of the bay (Septic Fee).

Those issues played out this legislative session, but the bigger win came in the same sex marriage debate. The bill failed last year and was sent back to the committee. Like last year, it was the House debate which was riveting and telling. The opposition coalition included Republicans, Conservative Democrats, and some church going Black Democrats in population centers. They were central to opposition. It was clear once again a lot emotion ran through this debate. Defenders tried to couch this as a “civil rights issue.” The bill turned on a pair of Delegates with embattled Delegate Tiffany Alston offering an amendment which allowed the measure not into effect until January 1, 2013. This will allow the measure to go to referendum. It will become one of the governor’s signature initiatives.

Budget Stalled

It was amazing to arrive today without a budget. Usually, the budget has been passed by both houses and its pretty much a foregone conclusion. There have been so many moving parts it been dizzying. It started with neither house wanting to give an inch. Speaker Michael Busch suggested the house was right to hold out for 95 percent of what they wanted. According to the Speaker, “we need them to come the other 5 percent. By 9:30 pm a Budget Bill was crafted the Senate did it’s work, the House finished its work at 10:00 pm.

This must pass legislations has had its critics. The governor suggested a gas tax initially to pay for road construction and while many wanted it, it was going nowhere fast. The governor lost several other initiatives including a wind turbine bill, and septic tank increase.

Expansion of Gaming

At the time of the time this writing the bill finally made it out of the House Ways and Means committee. It looks nothing like the bill the Senate sent over. The sub-committee dealing with the issue was headed by Delegate Frank Turner. The bill by Sen. Douglass J.J. Peters was revised. It now has provisions which would send the creation of a six slot location to the voters of Prince Georges County. If they approve the measure a location would be created with a 10 mile radius of the Wilson Bridge (think the National Harbor facility).

Also to allow those facilities which have been awarded a license to operate the committee go approval for the National Harbor facility not to come online until 2017. A number of the casino’s want to add table games. There will be a statewide referendum on this issue. Lots of opponents and some want the deal sweetened, especially in Baltimore.

The Year of Referendums

This being a Presidential election would mean there would be intense interest in the election. Adding to this interest will be a number of referendums. We know of five, The Dream Act, Same Sex Marriage, Redistricting, and the Expansion of Gaming.