ANNAPOLIS – With the final rap of the gavel at a few minutes past midnight Monday, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, found himself grimacing under an avalanche of confetti dumped from the House gallery.
In the waning hours of the evening, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, interrupted impassioned debate on a health care bill to remind senators the administration had already vowed to veto the legislation if it cleared the Senate.
And during an 11th-hour press appearance in his chambers high above the legislative fray, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich declared victory for his administration’s agenda, but decried the partisan politics that killed some of his major legislative priorities.
The state’s top three lawmakers ended the General Assembly session where they began it – frowning, frustrated, fractured, and without a plug for the state’s $800 million budget hole.
Ehrlich’s centrist agenda fared significantly better than his maiden legislative package, which died an ignominious death at the hands of the Democrat-controlled Legislature last year.
Despite losing the slot machine fight for the second consecutive year, the Republican administration managed to win approval for a $237 million transportation package, historic education funding, legislation to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the establishment of a Cabinet-level department of disabilities.
“We’re beginning to put our stamp on this state,” Ehrlich said. “Elections count. This is a different administration. We have a different worldview.”
Rather than try to balance the state’s budget with slots revenues like last year, Ehrlich presented a budget for the 2005 fiscal year balanced with one-time revenue sources. The fiscal Band-Aids satisfied most lawmakers for this session, but worries over future years eventually erupted into an all-out political brawl.
Ehrlich, Miller and Busch brought the Legislature to gridlock in the last two weeks as the three wrestled to craft a compromise between taxes and slots that would relieve the state’s longer-term fiscal woes.
For the second consecutive year, Miller pushed a slots bill through the Senate, while Busch propelled a $670 million tax package through the House as an alternative revenue source to slots.
Ehrlich resolutely rejected sales or income tax increases, and suffered defeat of his slots proposal as a House panel refused to consider the bill without additional revenues.
The standoff ended in a stalemate when Miller released his hold on the $23.7 billion budget for the 2005 fiscal year, and gave up his attempts to mediate the dispute between Ehrlich and Busch.
“I did the best I could. I’ve worked harder this session than any of my career, trying to bridge the gap between the speaker and the governor,” said Miller, a more than 30-year veteran of the General Assembly. “It was a fight every day against partisanship.”
In his State of the State address in January, Ehrlich called for bipartisan support and damned the partisan politics of Capitol Hill that had begun to infiltrate the hallowed citizen legislature of Annapolis during his first year in office.
But three months later, the former congressman’s words seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
Within days of the opening gavel in January, Democrats mounted support to override three of Ehrlich’s vetoes, the first successful veto upset in 15 years. And the partisan sniping only worsened.
By the last week of the session, Busch backed off his tax package in the interest of passing a budget and avoiding an extended session. But his surrender did not temper his disgust for Ehrlich’s threatened cuts to Medicaid and local governments to balance the budget in 2006.
“There’s a different dynamic. The paradigm is shifting,” Busch said. “For the first time, you have a governor who’s not willing to discuss an equitable way to balance the budget. If anyone thinks it’s easy to raise revenues and fight off the administration because they believe in funding education . . . people made difficult decisions.”
Who exactly was to blame for the lack of compromise depended on your perspective.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, ended the session defending the House’s defiant resistance to slots without taxes.
“We missed the opportunity to fix the problems, and the governor’s inflexibility is the major culprit in that,” Barve said.
His colleague across the aisle, House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, pointed fingers in the opposite direction.
“The speaker put partisanship in front of the interests of the people – and that will hurt in the out-years,” O’Donnell said.
Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, also a 30-year veteran of Annapolis politics, said the tense political climate may have permanently disfigured some of the Legislature’s hallmarks.
“I’ve never seen a legislative session anywhere similar to this one from the standpoint of tension, acrimony and divisive feelings among the legislators themselves,” Bereano said. “Regretfully, that was a tone that started out and just crescendoed through the 90 days.”
Gazette political columnist Barry Rascovar attributed all the partisan bickering to the existence of divided government in Maryland for the first time in 30 years.
“The Democrats, far more than the Republicans, don’t know how to deal with Ehrlich,” Rascovar said. “Do you hold press conferences with a bunch of props, or phony rallies where all the Democrats put on T-shirts ridiculing the governor?”
Bereano took that explanation a step further.
“It’s not just a divided government. You have a divided branch,” Bereano said. “There’s a profound split (between the House and Senate) that’s never been that great.”
Many lawmakers left Annapolis with a gloomy outlook on next year’s session.
As he prepared to step into his new position as Secretary of Veterans Affairs after 16 years in the House of Delegates, Majority Whip George W. Owings, D-Calvert, summed up his last legislative session in farewell remarks to his colleagues.
“We have three independent, solid, honest people in our hierarchy,” Owings said. “We have a governor from the north, a president from the south and a speaker from the east. What we have here is the perfect storm!”