ANNAPOLIS – Budget battles may force the General Assembly into an extended session, state leaders said Wednesday.
Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles County, said he thinks an extended session is likely, but passing a good budget takes precedence over ending the session on time.
The budget must be passed by the 90th day, or the final day, of the scheduled session, otherwise legislators must stay until the budget is passed.
Already the budget is expected to reach the Senate one week later than is typical, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, told senators Wednesday. The budget must pass the House of Delegates before the Senate can vote on it.
“We’re going to be in a crunch time the last couple days of session,” Miller told senators Wednesday.
The last extended session was in 1992, during a time of similar fiscal problems, said Warren Deschenaux, director of the Office of Policy Analysis. He said it is too early to determine whether an extended session is necessary.
“I think it’s something that you need to be prepared to do,” Middleton said. “Not only is this the biggest deficit that I’ve ever seen since I’ve been up here . . . you have a very controversial piece to the budget and that adds a whole lot of uncertainty.”
The state faces a $1.2 billion budget gap in fiscal year 2004. Gov. Robert Ehrlich proposed legalizing slot machines to produce $400 million in revenue to close part of that gap and has told lawmakers he will veto any tax increases.
House leaders will have a difficult time passing the budget without slots revenue, Miller said.
House leaders, including Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, oppose slot machines and offered budget alternatives to their revenue.
Barve said he has enough votes to block slots legislation in the House.
“The bottom line is we can balance the budget without legalizing slot machines,” Barve said. Closing corporate tax loopholes could offset the loss of slots revenue, he said.
“You can’t just say `No, no, no,’ or vote no and participate in demagoguery,” Ehrlich said. “This is a serious budget situation, we have a shortfall. We’ve identified a new revenue source. We think it makes sense . . . Just saying `No’ is not good enough.”
Ehrlich said he and Miller have enough combined clout to legalize slots this session. He also has said he has a supermajority of lawmakers waiting to vote for the proposal.
“He’s not completely correct,” Barve said. “I can’t see how he says he has a `supermajority.'”
Before any budget is passed, leaders in the House and Senate need to start talking with each other, said House Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman John Hurson, D-Montgomery.
“We haven’t come to an understanding,” Hurson said, a few hours after a fiscal policy meeting between House and Senate leaders was cancelled.
Regardless of where legislators stand on the governor’s proposal the debate will take time, Middleton said. “You just aren’t going to be able to put together a bill and run it through,” Middelton said. “It can be very, very complicated and require a lot more time.” – 30 – CNS-2-12-03