What now? Legislative leaders decry budget cuts, say special session is needed

Democratic lawmakers limped out of Annapolis Tuesday having enacted a "doomsday" budget that slashes spending for education and other services they do not want to cut — and with no clear plan on how to fix a political mess of their own making.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — whose clashes over gambling helped bring about a chaotic ending to the 2012 General Assembly session Monday night — agreed that a special session is needed to fix Maryland's budget.

But the man who would call such a session, Gov. Martin O'Malley, remained publicly noncommittal. He brushed off questions about whether and when he would call legislators back to Annapolis to avert the deep cuts triggered by the legislature's failure to pass a tax increase before the midnight deadline.

The three men, all Democrats, got together Tuesday morning for a somewhat awkward bill signing at which O'Malley expressed dissatisfaction with the work done under the leadership of the two men by his side.

While he praised the Assembly's accomplishments with environmental legislation and the capital budget, O'Malley said the legislature's failure to maintain spending levels for such priorities as public schools and higher education was "really a damn shame." He said the doomsday operating budget "was pretty much the low point in my experience here."

The spending plan — balanced with more than $500 million in cuts beyond what lawmakers had hoped to make — was sending tremors across the state as county and school district officials were scrambling to prepare their own budgets for the coming year. The state budget contains deep cuts in funding for law enforcement, libraries and education.

For the Baltimore school system, the loss in per-pupil funding would be about $11.5 million, plus $22 million from another state account. "If we need to find $30 million, everyone will feel the impact," said city schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

"The resolution, if any, needs to come quickly," Alonso said. "Schools cannot wait till June to know their budgets. And it will be disastrous if we give schools budgets that demand that they cut staff when those cuts might be unnecessary."

O'Malley hinted that he will eventually do as the presiding officers suggest and call a special session. If the state is to avoid the steep cuts, it would have to pass by July 1 a tax-raising bill and a measure shifting some teacher pension costs from the state to the counties.

"We can't change the past. We can only change the future," O'Malley said.

The teacher pension and tax increase measures died in the final minutes of the 90-day session. Legislative leaders had broken a stalemate over budget issues, and the Assembly managed to pass a budget bill, but not the companion measures to help pay for it.

O'MaIley and Busch have suggested that Miller allowed progress to slow when he realized that a bill to allow table games and a sixth casino in Maryland — a priority of Miller's — was in trouble in the House.

Miller played down the significance of the failure to act and was conciliatory toward Busch. "We had an agreement and the clock ran out on us. The speaker couldn't have worked any harder," he said. "This is a minor bump in the road."

The Senate president predicted that lawmakers and the governor would find a way to stave off the cuts.

"We'll come back and get it done in a one- or two-day session, and everything will be fine," he said.

It could go that quickly if top leaders came in with a relatively simple plan — such as to pass the final tax and spending deals that Senate and House negotiators agreed to on the final night. But if other issues creep into the mix — such as the gambling expansion plan desired by Miller or taxes for transportation projects the governor wants — it could take weeks.

Busch agreed that the budget needs to be fixed — but that it can't happen immediately.

"You can't until you have a plan," he said. Busch said he agrees that lawmakers have to come back to get an acceptable budget, but he stressed the difficulty of rounding up 141 delegates and 47 senators who had expected to go back to their families and full-time jobs.

In comments to reporters, Busch made clear he was still upset with the Senate's handling of the budget and gambling issues, which became intertwined in the waning days of the session.

"Those senators ought to go home and defend that budget in front of their county councils and have a good time," Busch said.