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Session timing still in limbo; GOP opposes it

Tuesday - 4/17/2012, 5:15pm  ET

By SARAH BREITENBACH and BRIAN WITTE
Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - House Speaker Michael Busch suggested Tuesday that a special session to avert massive state budget cuts could take place in June, while Maryland Republican leaders said lawmakers don't need to return to Annapolis and should live with the reductions.

Lawmakers this month approved a bare-bones budget that would require about a half-billion dollars in spending cuts after they couldn't agree on a package of tax increases to help close the state's budget gap.

While some believe a special session would need to be held in May because local governments mostly approve their budgets by early June, Busch underscored that the state budget doesn't go into effect until July 1.

"So all the counties preparing their budgets, I'm sure they can prepare contingency budgets on what happens if in fact the state comes back and replenishes those revenues and what's their budget if the state doesn't," the Anne Arundel Democrat told reporters. He said he believes the agenda for any special session needs to be clear.

GOP members of the House of Delegates held a news conference to oppose plans for a special session, which they contend would lead to unnecessary tax increases.

"The reality is we give voice to what I believe is the middle temper of Maryland," Delegate Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, said. "And that middle temper of Maryland is very different than the very-left leadership you see here in Annapolis on the second floor or in the General Assembly."

In the final hours of the legislative session, lawmakers failed to replace roughly $500 million in spending cuts with a package that included an income tax increase on people who make $100,000 a year and alternate savings that included a split of teacher pension costs with counties.

It's widely expected that the governor will call lawmakers back to attempt to rectify the budget situation, which would eliminate 500 state jobs and make significant cuts to education, including the elimination of about $129 million in funding for parts of the state where education costs are higher.

Busch said it was unfortunate for the state to need a special session, after just adjourning last week from a 90-day regular session.

"I think citizens of the state of Maryland ought to be disappointed in their elected officials for not being able to finish the work of the state in that 90-day period, and it's unfortunate that we're in a position where we have to have a special session," said Busch, who had criticized senators for focusing so much on gambling legislation in the final days.

Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot, described the budget situation as a "contrived crisis," and she said a special session would pave the way for massive tax hikes. She compared it to the 2007 special session when lawmakers increased a variety of taxes, including the state sales tax from 5 to 6 percent.

"That just harkens back to the 2007 special session where policy was derived basically by scribbling ideas on the back of a napkin, making decisions in the middle of the night when the citizens did not have an opportunity to state their peace and be involved in the process," she said. "And if we had a special session now, it will be exactly the same thing."

Republicans contend that the state can survive a year with the spending reductions, but advocates for education and public employees plan to unveil a "doomsday clock" Wednesday afternoon, counting down until July 1 when the budget cuts would take effect if a special session is not called.

The GOP pointed to a memo issued last week by state budget secretary T. Eloise Foster that advised that the budget was still about $70 million out of balance. Foster advised the governor to defer signing any bills that will reduce general fund revenues until the imbalance is addressed.

Republicans described the shortfall as a rounding error.

"While it is not a budget that we would have crafted, necessarily, this budget is balanced and does not demand a special session," O'Donnell said.

Its remains unclear when Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley may call a special session, but there does not appear to be a rush.

"I don't know exactly what the status is right now," Busch said, adding that he has not spoken with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, since the last day of the session more than a week ago.

Busch also said he had no thoughts about when the best time to hold one would be.

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