By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich and state GOP leaders pressed Democratic leaders Wednesday for a special General Assembly session to tackle the state’s projected $1.7 billion budget deficit.
But calling for an emergency session is probably a moot gesture, because the State House and Governor’s Office are in Democratic control, and it would be up to them to order a special session.
That’s prompted Democrats and analysts to charge that Republican leaders are just trying to score political points — keeping the bad economic news in headlines as Tuesday’s election looms.
The call for a special session came in a Republican caucus members’ news conference, where the GOP criticized Gov. Parris Glendening’s administration for budget inaction and fiscal irresponsibility.
“The magnitude of this deficit requires action today – not tomorrow,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset.
The state budget “mismanagement” has produced a more than $400 million hole this year that must be filled, Stoltzfus said. The governor-elect – U.S. Rep. Ehrlich or Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend – and legislative leaders will also have to plug a $1 billion-plus deficit for fiscal year 2004.
“It’s time to stop the delay and go to work,” Stoltzfus said. “The Glendening-Townsend administration has so far gone AWOL. We are asking for leadership and we are offering to help.”
A special session in the state Legislature, to be held after the election, would urge Glendening to make fiscal adjustments before the governor-elect presents the official plan to legislators next year.
“We’re going to return this Legislature to the way it used to be, which was a serious sense of credibility with Maryland taxpayers,” Ehrlich said. “Yet, because of the situation we’re going to be dealt in this first year, we’re just going to be trimming. It’s just going to be trimming to stay alive.”
Democrats doubt the sincerity of the Republicans’ call for an emergency meeting of the assembly.
It reeks of a campaign ploy by the Ehrlich campaign, said Kate Philips, a Townsend spokeswoman.
“I think it’s not fair to Maryland voters to talk about the budget over the summer as a serious issue and not propose anything and then six days before the election, masquerade as someone who cares about this issue,” Philips said.
Tom Schaller, assistant political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the attention given to the issue this late is a common political gambit in the election game.
Republicans want voters to have the budget deficit fresh in their minds when they vote, he said.
“It’s clear that nothing can really be done between November and January to solve the budget problem,” Schaller said. “This is partisan politics masquerading as fiscal policy.”
The party hopes that the public’s budget worries will, in turn, translate into gains in seats for the GOP – six to 12 seats in the House and four to six seats in the Senate, said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr., R- Baltimore County.
They have already reserved a joint hearing room for “a series of intensive budget briefings” between now and January for new Republicans, Redmer said.
“I think a dialogue is certainly wanted between now and next January,” said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, D-Charles, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Middleton said all department officials have been warned by Glendening to prepare for cuts.
“They’re already taking steps to reduce spending and making some provisions to absorb some of these cuts,” Middleton said. And even if Glendening were to make cuts now, it could hurt his party’s chances at the polls and give Republicans more specifics to attack.
Glendening, said his spokeswoman, will wait until after the election to get his successor’s input.
“What the governor has said is that he will be meeting with the governor- elect and at that time those two, along with legislative leaders and the budget secretary, will see where adjustments can be made,” said Raquel Guillory, governor’s spokeswoman.
“It sounds like the governor is unfortunately taunting instead of taking this issue head-on,” said Dan Ronayne, Republican caucus spokesman. “Every single day that goes by without this issue being addressed digs the hole deeper. It’s unfortunate that the Glendening-Townsend administration will not acknowledge and deal with this crisis.” -30- CNS-10