By Rolando Garcia and Stephanie Tracy
ANNAPOLIS – Comptroller William Donald Schaefer sharply rebuked his friend Gov. Robert Ehrlich Wednesday for not taking a hands-on approach to solving a budget impasse with the General Assembly.
“You’re the governor and you need to be going to these meetings (with legislative leaders), not your staff,” Schaefer told Ehrlich at a Board of Public Works meeting.
With the legislative session scheduled to wrap up Monday, Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, appear no closer to a compromise on slots, favored by Ehrlich, and taxes, backed by Busch, as a solution to the state’s long-term budget woes.
James “Chip” DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich’s budget secretary, has been meeting throughout the week with Busch and other House leaders, who have said they will not act on Ehrlich’s bill to legalize slot machines until the governor agrees to significant tax hikes.
The Senate, meanwhile, is refusing to move forward on the budget until the House takes up the slots bill.
But Busch said Wednesday he would be open to passing the 2005 budget, which is balanced without new revenues, and holding a special session later in the year to discuss slots and taxes.
The only way to break the budget stalemate is for Ehrlich to become personally involved in the negotiations, Schaefer said.
“It’s your job to bring them together,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer is one of Ehrlich’s most vocal supporters, and the outspoken former governor often uses his opening comments at the board meetings to blast Ehrlich’s critics and the Legislature.
Although the outburst was vintage Schaefer, he usually reserves his ire for Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the Baltimore Sun newspaper, Democratic leaders in the Assembly, former Gov. Parris Glendening and a host of others who have crossed him.
The board is made up of Ehrlich, Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and must approve state spending.
Schaefer was also miffed that he was not notified about Ehrlich’s Sunday meeting with Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“You didn’t even have the common courtesy to tell me about (the meeting), that’s very wrong,” Schaefer told DiPaula, who was also at the board meeting.
Neither Ehrlich nor DiPaula responded to Schaefer’s impromptu harangue.
“We value the comptroller’s thoughts and will continue to seek his counsel,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
With a state government to run, Ehrlich is too busy to attend daily budget negotiations, Fawell said, but stays in touch with Assembly leaders.
Busch reiterated his position Wednesday that Ehrlich find at least $500 million in new taxes to solve the state’s long-term fiscal problems. Legislative analysts estimate that even with slots, the state will face an $860 million budget shortfall next year.
“Our question is this — if you don’t need taxes, tell us how you’re going to fund the budget without cutting Medicaid or local governments?” Busch asked.
The House has passed a $1 billion tax package that includes a 1-cent sales tax increase earmarked for public schools, higher income taxes for wealthy Marylanders as well as property tax relief.
DiPaula has said the administration would entertain a much smaller revenue package.