April 11, 2012

Analysis: Spring chill hits Democratic leaders over budget

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Senate President Mike Miller talks to reporters after bill signing.

Senate President Mike Miller talks to reporters after bill sign.

By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch await bill signing Tuesday.

Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch await bill signing Tuesday.

The body language seemed to convey the lingering hostility. Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch stood stiffly behind their chairs, waiting for Gov. Martin O’Malley to arrive at Tuesday’s bill signing.

The usual celebratory atmosphere after the 90-day session was muted by the failure to enact the tax hikes the night before, forcing the implementation of a budget with another $500 million in budget cuts.

The chill did not diminish when the governor appeared. He cited successes on the environment and health care, but was still in a funk.

“Sadly, the operating budget was pretty much the low point of my experience here,” said O’Malley, who had set an ambitious agenda for the session. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.”

The future is likely to hold an O’Malley order for the lawmakers to return to Annapolis for a special session, as Miller and Busch would like to see. As Busch made clear in a MarylandReporter podcast, he actually preferred that the House and Senate extend the session on their own, but Miller refused after Busch paid a personal and highly visible visit to Miller on the Senate rostrum Monday night.

O’Malley would not discuss calling a special session either Monday night or Tuesday morning, shoving aside the microphone when a reporter asked him about it again.

“He’s not a happy camper right now,” Miller told reporters afterward, referring to O’Malley. “He’ll get over it.”

Miller upbeat, but target of wrath

Miller was the most upbeat of the trio, and the man the other two blamed for the chaotic end of session. There is always drama in the final hours of the General Assembly; bills die as time runs out and some miraculously survive. Monday’s drama was abnormal as these things go. Important bills expire at end of session, but typically not the legislation that smoothes the way for the coming budget.

Miller is an ideal target for the wrath of O’Malley, Busch and others. Large and flamboyantly loquacious, he can come off as magnanimous and sensitive leader one moment, and a blustering bully the next, unworried that his 26-year tenure at the Senate’s tiller is in jeopardy. Comptroller Peter Franchot, who made a special trip to the State House press room Monday to complain of Miller’s obsession with spreading gambling, said on the radio Tuesday that Miller should forced out. But having reneged on a pledge to retire four years ago, no one is pushing Miller out the door, as much as they would like to.

“We didn’t fail anybody,” Miller said. “This is a minor bump in the road.” If the legislature comes back for a one or two day session, Miller insisted, “everything will be fine.”

The dysfunction between the House and Senate “happens all the time,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

Miller praised Busch for his efforts. “The speaker couldn’t have worked harder,” he said. Busch rolled his eyes.

Senate President Mike Miller talks to reporters after bill signing.

Senate President Mike Miller talks to reporters after bill signing.

Doomsday was Miller’s brainchild

It was Miller who early in the session came up with the idea of the “doomsday” budget. He wanted unpleasant spending cuts in the governor’s budget that were to happen if legislators did not back tax hikes. The $500 million in cuts – half of them to K-12 and higher education – were designed “to give people the courage to vote” for the tax increases.

No one expected the cuts to be implemented, but budgeters in both houses dug in their heels. “Both sides wouldn’t move,” Miller said. In the podcast, Busch insisted it could have been resolved last week.

Led by Miller, the Senate wanted a larger income tax hike, affecting more taxpayers; the House wanted only people making more than $100,000 and up to pay more, but at a lower rate, raising less money than the Senate. In the final hours of the session, the Senate caved in to almost all the House demands, hardly a model of compromise.

“My conferees are clapping their hands,” Miller told reporters. “They’re pissed off.”

Special session in May likely

Give O’Malley a day or two to cool off and he’ll likely issue the order for a special session to raise taxes, the second of his tenure. Something starting around May 1 is likely for several reasons.

The most compelling reason for lawmakers to come back to finish the job is that they failed to pass not just tax hikes, but the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act. This omnibus piece of legislation amends more than two dozen state laws, transferring funds and changing funding formulas and spending requirements affecting tens of millions of dollars. Without the BRFA (BUR-fa), the budget is incomplete and can’t be completely implemented. This includes the shift of some teacher pension costs to the counties.

With a week or two, the constituencies most impacted by budget cuts will have had time to get their members riled up: the teachers union facing loss of school funding, college students and administrators facing tuition hikes, state workers no longer getting their first cost of living raise in years.

Other constituencies also have pressing needs. The counties are about to finalize their local budget proposals, most of which must be passed by the end of May. They all depend on state funding. Over the last three years, the counties have lost much of their state aid, but they still need to know the final figure what they’ll get.

More than half of most local budgets go to schools, and the school systems need to know what they’re getting. Will they get what they thought was coming through most of the session, or the doomsday hit? University regents and community college trustees need to know whether they need to raise tuitions to make up for the 10% doomsday cut. State agencies need to know if they must trim operating expenses 8% come July, and whether another 500 state positions must go.

Not to be dismissed is the elimination of the $12 million in scholarships delegates and senators dole out to constituents, often at high school graduation and awards ceremonies in May. Howard County Sen. Allan Kittleman and his father, the late senator and delegate Robert Kittleman, have sought to wipe out this program over the years, but it is popular with legislators.

The GOP in general is happy with this and most other doomsday cuts, which look much like their budget trimming plans with the goal of no new taxes in past years. The Democratic supermajority and its constituencies are not likely to go along.

  • KatieSilverSpring

    OK, boys, you just keep dancing around the state capitol thinking the world rotates around Baltimore, ok? O’Malley wants to be President, Franchot wants to be Governor, Miller wants a good cigar at the gaming table and Busch wants to change his name to Wm Donald Schaefer.  Keep it up.  Maryland is headed for Progressive Heaven (or, Hell for us taxpayers).

    Go find the latest email from state Sen Jamie Raskin; it will chill your enthusiasm.  While you boys are playing the good ole Maryland political game, the Progressives are rotting the wood beams out from within.  Or better yet, take a quiet tour around your state, no, not, the bars in Annapolis or in your District.  Go out to western Maryland, do a walk through in Baltimore city (WALK through), or better yet go to the pool halls in Glen Burnie or southern PG Co.

    Charles Carroll is spinning in his grave.

  • Maxine012

    It is obvious to me that Mike Miller is the rotten log in this cabin. He is obligated to Big Gambling in
    any form and is refusing to listen to those of us who do not want our cabin built on gambling. He is the
    one who refused, lacked the courage, to raise taxes, not Busch and O’Malley. His tyrannical rule of
    the Senate and now attempt and ruling the state should be ended. He promised to step down, and
    reneged. He should resign now.

    • Dale McNamee

       Maxine,

       I, and other suffering taxpaying subjects of this state don’t want our “cabin” built on ever increasing tax increases and new taxes and “fees”. Nor do we want crony capitalism, or their unaffordable dreams…

      • abby_adams

        Amen! Their dreams are our tax nightmares.

  • JGwen

    Governor O’Malley, Speaker Busch and Senate President Miller – Welcome to Our World!

    We, Maryland citizens, particularly private sector employees, have been living on “Doomsday Budgets” for some time, thanks to Maryland’s profligate and undisciplined spending! Maryland citizens, who are working and paying their own ways, can not continue to afford unduly generous wide ranging rewards, subsidizations, entitlements and “do-gooder” projects. Our Nation and our State have been chronically and ever increasingly in debt. My understanding is that our State Leaders produced a budget that not only (in theory) addressed the billion plus of existing debt, but added a billion plus in new spending!

    When I can barely afford a well used cloth coat from Good Will, I don’t run down and sign on for debt to buy a floor length ermine from a Gold Coast emporium (even if the interest rates would be terrific) . It is long past time, on both the National and State levels, to set priorities, start paying off our existing debts and living within our means! No more up front and sub rosa strategies to extract taxpayer (insureds and rate payer) monies, particularly for your many very debatable discretionary schemes!

    While I may not fully agree with who isn’t effected and those scheduled to be effected, bring on “Doomsday,” before it is too late! We appreciate what our elected “Statesmen and women” have been trying to accomplish! We just need many more of them before Maryland joins California as a Venezuela of the North. 

    • Dale McNamee

       JGwen,

       Amen & AMEN !

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  • Vic

    None of these politicians understand Profit and Loss.  Budgeting should be a simple math problem.  Income is 100.00, your spending should be $99.00, not $1,000.  So the only thing to do is cut spending to live by your means, not borrow and borrow, because you will never be able to pay it back, if your income continues to be $100.00.