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Lawmakers bicker over blame for budget impasse

ANNAPOLIS — A leading Senate budget negotiator expressed frustration Monday that House conferees were not meeting senators halfway in last-minute budget talks. But the House speaker suggested the Senate had slowing up budget work by focusing so much on passing a bill to expand gambling in the state.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the gambling measure passed by the Senate to allow table games such as blackjack at five approved casino sites and a newly proposed sixth casino in Prince George’s County “should not take priority over the budget of the state of Maryland.” The speaker, a gambling skeptic, also said he believes the budget should have been passed three days ago.

“If the budget of the state of Maryland goes down and the senators are more concerned about the obsession with gaming than they are with school construction, school funding, hospitals, higher education money, then let them wear that when they go home and tell their constituents why they had to spend extra time in Annapolis,” Busch said, with less than 12 hours left in the session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said major differences between the two chambers over the budget were causing the delay. The Senate wants to raise taxes on those making less than $100,000 a year to address future budget problems, in addition to the higher income taxes on upper earners that both chambers back.

“There are those of us that understand that we have a structural deficit that has to be dealt with,” Miller said. “You can’t keep owing, owing, owing, owing and owing. You know, we need to clear up our debts, move our state forward, and we can’t do it with zero dollars, so unless we have an agreement, we’re prepared to let the body adjourn without having a budget agreement.”

Budget negotiations on a package of budget measures are stuck over whether to reduce tax exemptions on federally adjusted gross income for people who make less than $100,000 a year from $3,200 to $3,000. The House opposes it, and the Senate is pushing to reduce it for three years.

Senate conferees already have made concessions regarding a shift of teacher pension costs as well as higher income tax rates on people who make more than $100,000 a year, said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer.

“So we just feel from a good-faith perspective we’ve gone a lot toward them, and there is a factor of principle that factors into this that you’ve given and given and given and we sort of feel that’s not being reciprocated, so that’s where we are,” Kasemeyer said.

Del. Kumar Barve, a House negotiator, said the House made a big concession in agreeing to the teacher pension split. The House has opposed it for years.

“Our principle is that we don’t want to tax middle-class people,” Barve said.

Usually by now, a panel of House and Senate negotiators would have completed its work reconciling differences between budget measures passed by the two chambers. But this year has been difficult, because debate has focused on tax increases and lawmakers have different views about how to balance the books for the next fiscal year and halve an ongoing $1.1 billion deficit.

Flush tax, septic system bills pass

Meanwhile, the General Assembly gave final passage Monday to two priorities of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s.

One would double the state’s “flush tax” on sewer bills from $30 to $60 a year to pay for upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities. Lawmakers also gave final passage to a bill that limits where new septic systems can be installed. The measure creates a four-tiered system that limits where developers can build residential subdivisions that use septic systems rather than public water and sewer services.

Some high-profile measures were facing uncertain prospects, including legislation to boost offshore wind energy. The measure, scaled back significantly from a bill that failed last year, has sailed through the House but is pending in the Senate. The bill would cost residential utility customers about $1.50 a month if offshore wind turbines are developed as soon as five years off the coast of Ocean City.

The Senate, on a 26-20 vote Monday, approved a measure that is designed to help foster public-private partnerships on big projects such as roads and public buildings. The bill is the same proposal that O’Malley’s administration submitted. The House of Delegates made some significant changes to the bill earlier this session to allow legal appeals to be heard on an expedited track before the Court of Special Appeals, the state’s intermediate appellate court.

That provision would be retroactive to apply to the State Center project in Baltimore. The change brought criticism from some lawmakers who said it would confer special legal benefits for certain companies. The differences between the two bills will need to be worked out before Monday’s midnight adjournment.