By Alyson Klein and Michael Duck
ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich said Thursday that a special session to get a slots bill approved might be “nice” to clear the General Assembly’s decks for work on potentially sweeping budget cuts.
“We could conceivably have some revenue (next year), which would certainly help if we could get it done. That’s why a special session would be nice,” Ehrlich said.
His staff said the special session could be shoehorned in between now and the scheduled beginning of the Assembly on Jan. 14.
House Speaker Michael Busch, who orchestrated the downfall of Ehrlich’s slots bill last session, said the governor has not approached him about the possibility of a special session.
“It’s hard to have any understanding of what the governor’s intention would be,” said Busch, who mentioned he has met with Ehrlich only once since June.
The State House, Busch said, is not a big place.
“He’s on the second floor. I’m on the first floor. That’s all I’m going to say.”
To call a special session, Ehrlich would likely need Busch’s help – the state Constitution says a majority of both houses of the General Assembly must petition the governor, who would then call the session. However, the governor can call such a session in an emergency.
It’s unclear whether the state’s fiscal problems – it’s facing at least a $700 million budget deficit – qualifies as such an emergency.
Ehrlich’s promised budget is likely to be painful. He announced Wednesday at an economic conference that his budget will cut funding for nearly every state sponsored program – increasing budget lines only in public education and Medicaid.
“I’m going to provide options to the governor that will cut virtually everything the state does,” said Neil Bergsman, executive director of the Department of Budget and Management.
“There’s very little left to be cut. There’s no money left in most of the programs,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery. “I’m not sure how they’ll survive or if they’ll survive at all.”
Cuts are probably unavoidable in the coming fiscal year – even if a slots bill were to pass in a special session.
“If there is a special session, which is very unlikely, but if it were to happen, real income (from slots) could be counted on in the ’06 budget,” said Greg Massoni, spokesman for the administration. “It will not affect the budget as proposed for this year.”
It could, however, help fund the Thornton Commission school reform proposals in subsequent years, the administration said.
Some House members agreed with the speaker, saying it’s unlikely that Ehrlich has a clear plan for slots.
“I think he’s posturing a little bit,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. “It’s another pretty dismal, uninspired performance by the governor . . . I can’t imagine the legislative leaders responding positively to another vague slots proposal,” he said.
“There’s nothing in writing, and so why would we have a special session?”
Ehrlich also announced Wednesday his plans to begin working on a bill closing the so-called Delaware loophole, which allows corporations to set up accounts in the tax-free neighboring state, while conducting the bulk of their business in Maryland.
Bergsman said that could mean savings in the millions.
Capital News Service reporter Dan Wilcock contributed to this report. – 30 – CNS-11-20-03