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Annapolis budget meltdown could sully leaders' reputations

Instead of the confetti, balloons and good will that typically mark the end of the General Assembly's 90-day session, the legislature adjourned Monday with a toxic mixture of anger and disbelief that the Democratic-controlled body gridlocked and was forced to enact a fallback budget that cuts deeply into Democratic spending priorities.

The blame game started immediately. One top Democrat called for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. to step aside. Political pundits — and the Republican Party — pointed fingers at Gov. Martin O'Malley, saying he's been too busy preparing a presidential run and has neglected his duties in Annapolis.

The public, meanwhile, has registered disgust with all politicians in the state capital.

"Very alarming" is how Dwight Blackwell, 47, of Baltimore characterized the situation. "Maybe some people should be losing their jobs if they can't come to agreement. Then you'll see things getting done."

Annapolis, it seems, has sunk on par with Congress, which has registered historically low approval ratings in public polling. The political fallout for the impasse could have long-term ramifications for state lawmakers, who face re-election campaigns again in 2014, the state's ruling Democratic party and for O'Malley, who is widely seen as a candidate for higher office.

But the extent to which last week's failure dogs them will depend on whether leaders craft a budgetary solution — and how long that takes, political observers say. Should it be fixed quickly, voters are likely to forget.

"The public just has a general sense of dysfunction about the legislature," said Steve Raabe, the President of OpinionWorks, a nonpartisan polling firm. "They are just generally disgusted that in a 90-day session a basic job like the budget can't get done."

Blackwell, who is self-employed and a Democrat, said he felt the state's leaders all "had their own agenda."

"You have to be willing to compromise," he said.

Stanley Shedaker, a Wicomico County small businessman, had a similar sentiment. "No one is working for the common good," said the 59-year old Democrat. "We have to start working for the good of the whole."

For the first time in twenty years, Maryland's General Assembly failed to pass a spending plan that leaders had agreed upon. House Speaker Michael E. Busch attempted to extend the session to do so, but the Senate rebuffed the idea.

At least part of the breakdown in cross-chamber negotiations was over legislation to allow a sixth casino site in Maryland and legalize table games. Miller says he thought the House would take up the gambling expansion bill in addition to the budget. Busch, a longtime casino opponent, says that the gambling bill was not part of the budget package.

In the confusion, a package of tax increases never came to a vote in the Senate. That left the state with a so-called "Doomsday" budget that cuts hundreds of millions of dollars from public safety, education and other programs.

"If the Doomsday budget stands, everybody gets hurt," said Donald F. Norris, the public policy chairman at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It shows that they can't function. That they can't govern. And a lot of interests in Maryland get really badly hurt."

Adding to the disarray, it became clear last week that the spending plan enacted by the General Assembly still leaves the state in the red. It allowed costs to exceed revenues by about $70 million, meaning the legislature failed its primary constitutional duty: Approve a balanced budget.

Top legislative staffers stressed that the state's books could be easily balanced when the Board of Public Works meets. The three member panel can — and frequently does — make cuts to the state budget when spending and revenues are out-of-whack.

O'Malley could also call a special session to approve the tax increases and roll back the deepest spending cuts. It is unclear if a gambling expansion measure would be a part of the special session, or even if the governor will call one.

By most accounts, O'Malley has the most to lose in a drawn-out fight — particularly if he hopes to impress national Democratic donors and opinion-makers.

The last-minute budget breakdown has overshadowed O'Malley's otherwise successful session. He would have preferred to spend last week on a victory lap, talking about the passage of same-sex marriage and several environmental priorities that had stalled last year.

Instead, the reductions in the Doomsday budget threaten to undercut one of the governor's central achievements: Protecting education during the recession, and particularly holding down costs for attending public universities.

The plan cuts about $62 million from higher education. Community colleges — the institutions O'Malley has said are key to retraining a workforce — are set for a $20 million hit. The University of Maryland would have raise tuition by 12 percent to 13 percent, said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

"Everybody is agonizing over the possibility that we would need to do that," Kirwan said. "It would wipe out so many of the gains we've made."

O'Malley, who is term-limited, has faced questions about leadership.

The Republican Party didn't miss a beat. In a talking-point memo the state party asks: "Is Martin O'Malley the Worst Leader in America?" and "What's the problem?"

"With super-majorities in each chamber and a complicit governor, Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves," David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party said in a statement. "This dysfunctional leadership is a disservice to the Marylanders who sent them to Annapolis to do the people's business."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said that if O'Malley seeks the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, his opponents would likely raise the fiasco in Annapolis. Other governors are expected to run, and they would "probably contrast O'Malley's failure with their successes," Sabato said.

He said the logical line of attack would be: "If O'Malley couldn't get a budget with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, how can he hope to get one — and tame the national debt — with a highly partisan, divided, polarized Congress?"

It's a question that is already being asked. The Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney wrote, "O'Malley's embarrassing setback … suggests he's not ready for the White House."

Asked about the article during a radio interview on WTOP, O'Malley said he was "disappointed" by the "level of reporting."

The governor has accepted a share of the blame. He has also pointed at Miller.

"The legislature gridlocked in the final moments of the session," O'Malley said on the radio interview. "Seemingly, the Senate was not capable of passing the compromise budget without also passing gambling."

He also has said he will call a special session to fix the budget problems — if and when the House and Senate leaders have a deal.

Miller, the long-serving Senate President, is also taking a battering.

One senator — the youngest in the chamber — wrote in an e-mail to constituents that he was "embarrassed" by the budget that passed with his support.

"We should have asked more questions," wrote Baltimore senator Bill Ferguson, a Democrat. "We should have demanded a transparent process."

Comptroller Peter Franchot, speaking on a WBAL radio show, said it is time for Miller to "step aside." The Comptroller added: "He's a fanatic for gambling, and it's getting in the way of protecting Maryland families."

Miller, during a separate WBAL radio appearance, bushed off the concern. "I've been around longer than most," he said. "I have a thick skin. I think I know how to balance the budget and move our state forward."

The Senate president, who has been the chamber's leader for a quarter-century, has played down the significance of the budget meltdown, saying it is not uncommon for the legislature to run out of time. The last time the body failed to agree on a budget was in 1992, though leaders used to work past midnight at the end of session and simply ignore the clock.

Nonetheless, criticism directed at Miller filled editorial pages of many of the state's newspapers. And, though Miller is hardly a household name, there is some evidence the public is paying attention. Last week during O'Malley's WTOP appearance, one caller asked the governor if it was time for Miller to retire. (O'Malley ducked the question.)

Is Miller in any danger? Two political analysts outside the State House who were contacted for this story declined to say anything on the record about the Senate president, for fear of angering him. Their hesitation suggests that the budget flap has not pierced any perceptions of his power — at least for now.

Moreover, Miller's top budget deputies have rallied around him. Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he didn't feel gambling held up the budget deal — and echoed Miller's point that the General Assembly simply waited too long to forge an agreement.

"After taking too long to reach a compromise, we ran out of time to get it passed," Madaleno said.

Former Gov. Parris Glendening, who worked with Miller over his two terms, predicted that the Senate president will work for a speedy resolution.

Glendening said that Miller has "three great passions" — the state Senate, the state of Maryland and the Democratic Party. "He does not want any of them to suffer, or to be hurt by his or the Senate's actions," he said.

But Glendening added: "The truth of the matter is, if this is not resolved, all three will be hurt."

The one leader who hasn't be singled out for much ire — yet — is Busch. Like Miller, his name is not widely known outside political circles. Even in Annapolis, Busch's low-key and friendly persona allows him to deflect some criticism.

Indeed, many of his chamber's members defend him. Del. Anne Kaiser, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said that her colleagues felt "bullied" by what they perceived as Miller's insistence that the House pass a gambling bill.

But in a drawn-out ordeal, experts say, he would not escape public blame either.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

twitter.com/annielinskey

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