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O’Malley says consensus key to special session

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley said Tuesday he will call a special session of the General Assembly to avert about $512 million in budget cuts as soon as the House and Senate can reach consensus on how to pass a revenue package needed to make up the money.

Asked when he would like to call a special session, O’Malley responded: “Yesterday.”

Then he added, “I’m looking for consensus here. The second we have consensus, we’ll have a session.”

The governor spoke with reporters after meeting with senators for more than an hour, including Sens. Thomas V. Mike Miller, Edward Kasemeyer, Richard Madaleno and Nathaniel McFadden, all Democrats.

“This session was not a proper reflection of who we are as a people, and we need to find the (consensus) to move forward again, and I trust that both of the presiding officers will be working with me to do just that,” said O’Malley, a Democrat.

O’Malley was not specific about how far apart the two sides are, but it did not appear a special session would happen soon.

Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker Michael Busch suggested a special session could even be put off until June. While some believe a special session would need to be held in May because many local governments 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 before it is set.

Republican 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,” Del. 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 agree on a tax package and instead passed a bare-bones budget with roughly $500 million in spending cuts. Lawmakers were focused on 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.

‘Contrived crisis’

The so-called “doomsday budget” 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. It also would have eliminated cost-of-living raises for state employees and reduced state operating expenses by 8 percent.

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 too much on gambling legislation in the final days.

Del. 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.

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.

Busch said he had no specific thoughts about when the best time to hold a special session would be.

“I just think if you’re going to have a special session, it’s got to be planned out,” the speaker said. “You have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. You have to have the votes, and the general public doesn’t expect us to be here for a prolonged period of time.”

Busch, who noted that he had breakfast with O’Malley on Saturday, said Tuesday afternoon he did not have any other meetings scheduled yet with the governor.

“I would imagine it would be a meeting between the two presiding officers and the governor and as of yet there hasn’t been a meeting scheduled,” Busch said.