January 13, 2010

Partisan rancor colors contentious session

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

If the dueling presentations by two General Assembly leaders that startled a meeting of county officials Friday was a taste of fights to come, the legislative session starting today promises to be contentious, partisan and painful.

Finger-pointing accusations will soon replace back-slapping camaraderie. Lawmakers are heading into an election year when the electorate is wary and many voters are angry and unemployed.

Elected local officials at Maryland Association of Counties meetings are sometimes reminded to leave their party labels at the door. Friday morning, the party divisions were in their face.

House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate Budget chairman Ulysses Currie began their legislative previews with jokes. Senate Republican Leader Allan Kittleman said there was nothing to joke about. The normally mild-mannered Howard County senator lashed out at the Democrats who dominate the legislature.

“We have absolutely no power,” the frustrated Kittleman said at the Cambridge Hyatt. “They make all the decisions behind closed doors.”

He said the public hearings in the General Assembly are “for show,” and no Republicans are allowed into the major fiscal pow-wows.

“I want to apologize,” Kittleman told the county leaders. “We screwed you big time,” by not cutting the budget enough in 2009, and forcing mid-year cuts that left the counties reeling.

The senator spent several minutes decrying the Democrats’ sins. He mocked their new focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” as “three years too late.”

“We’re soaking you to death with our taxes,” he claimed.

Speaker Busch is an even-tempered man who normally delivers well-honed rhetoric in a deliberate monotone. Back at the podium to answer a question on business tax incentives, the ex-football coach warmed to the scrimmage. He started raising his on-field voice and shooting out his finger.

“I’m on my soapbox a little bit now,” he admitted. Busch said he voted for every one of the 2007 tax increases, and then he listed all the achievements the tax increases paid for: better schools, a tuition freeze at universities, better roads – all attractions to business.

“If you want to be number one, you have to invest in it. You want to be second, invest in something else,” he said. “This is a participatory sport. This is not one you where you sit out on the sidelines. No one won a game in the locker room.”

Of course, there are going to be no tax increases this session — it’s an election year, Kittleman said.

“What you need to ask them ‘Is there going to be a tax increase in 2011? Are we going to hit you with higher taxes or are we not?’ My party wants to help and be part of the solution. Don’t let them leave the room without answering that question.”

“If we continue to do what we did 2007, we’re going to destroy the business climate in Maryland, not just damage it,” Kittleman said.

Kittleman “proposes another $3 billion in cuts,” Busch said. “I hope he can put those specific cuts on the table, I expect you ask him before he leaves here what he’s going to put out there. If he puts them out there, we will consider them.”

GOP spending proposals do not have a good track record in the General Assembly, though. Outnumbered Republicans lawmakers repeatedly offer budget cuts in committee on or the floor, only to be voted down.

“We did put amendments out there,” Kittleman said.

Del. Addie Eckhardt, R-Middle Shore, an Appropriations Committee veteran in the audience, said the Democrats want to see the GOP list of cuts “so they can beat us over the head. I’m not putting myself out to get chopped up.”

“They have to invite us to the table,” Eckhardt said.

Democrats looking for a list of GOP cuts need look no further than the $530 million in spending reductions proposed on the Senate floor three years ago by Republican Sen. Lowell Stolzfus, during Gov. Martin O’Malley’s first months.

The cuts were not cosmetic: $165 million in aid to public K-12 schools, $47 million in aid to universities, $8.5 million in aid to private colleges and universities, $43 million in aid to localities and $15 million in aid to community colleges. And perhaps the one with the most long-lasting impact: cutting appropriations for teacher pensions by $44 million and freezing state funding for pensions at $555 million.

In fiscal 2011, teachers’ pensions will absorb $919 million in taxpayer dollars. If the state contribution had been frozen in 2007, the net savings from that one item alone would have been over $1 billion.

None of these proposed cuts were popular or politically correct, though Gov. Martin O’Malley has cut some of these same categories in the last nine rounds of budget trims. Teacher pensions, raised in the session before the 2006 election (and signed by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich), have yet to be touched. And the massive infusion of K-12 education aid passed before the 2002 election has not been scaled back, though it is effectively frozen.

The vote on the 2007 budget cuts proposed by Stoltzfus was straight party line – all 14 Republicans for, all 33 Democrats against.

The GOP’s 2007 cuts would not have come close to curing cured the continuing deficit, but by making those cuts three years ago, Maryland would have been closer to achieving that goal.

“It’s just too bad we have a one party state,” Kittleman said.