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.