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.


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