A busy regular legislative session that segued into a special session this week to approve a state budget has at least one leading Democrat wondering whether a change in General Assembly rules is needed to avoid future breakdowns.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach said he wants members to consider a change to the legislature’s rules to require lawmakers to pass a budget seven days before the end of future sessions; if lawmakers don’t meet that deadline, bills from the opposite chamber would not be considered until a budget deal is signed, he said.
“We’re here because of an unfortunate set of circumstances. The last night of session should never have occurred,” Miller said at the start of the special session. “The budget should have been done at least 10 days out.”
Miller said the rule change was “just a proposal” for lawmakers to consider before January’s regular session, but was meant to avoid another special session like the one called Monday.
The three-day special session, with an estimated $25,000-per-day price tag, led to passage of a budget agreement that was nearly identical to a compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators on the last day of the session.
The two budget-related bills passed this week create a $35.5 billion fiscal 2013 spending plan, which represents a 2.7 percent increase over fiscal 2012 spending.
A compromise income tax plan will raise $195.6 million in state revenue in fiscal 2013 through income tax hikes and $51.7 million by phasing out personal exemptions. The tax changes would affect single Marylanders making an adjustable gross income of more than $100,000 per year and couples claiming more than $150,000.
County governments would see an additional $31.4 million in revenue as a result of the income tax adjustments in fiscal 2013, according to a fiscal analysis.
That revenue will help to offset a provision to shift 50 percent of the “normal cost” of teacher pensions, or $136.6 million, to counties beginning in fiscal 2013. The normal cost of pensions is the amount needed to pay pension liabilities if the system hadn’t been underfunded in the past.
“Lots of bills did not pass this year because of the time crunch we were in at the end of session,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Dist. 5) of Manchester.
Before the next regular session, he wants lawmakers to consider a rule change that would require departmental bills to be prefiled. Getty also wants the Rules Committee to enforce a Senate rule that requires administration bills to be filed within the first 10 days of the session.
“I think there was increased frustration with members this session with the slow pace of action at the beginning and the crush of action in March and April,” Getty said.
Allowing committees to consider prefiled departmental bills early in the session and to only consider administration bills that meet the 10-day filing deadline would have left more time in April for the budget, said Getty, who keeps a running list of potential new rules in his desk.
He called Miller’s proposal a “reasonable enforcement mechanism.”
“We’ve fallen into an annual rut where the budget isn’t passed by the 83rd day, the governor issues the executive order, and it’s meaningless because the budget ultimately gets passed before the last day,” Getty said.
The Maryland Constitution requires the governor to issue an order on the 83rd day to extend the session if a budget agreement is not reached within a week from the order.
“Before 1991, the constitutional goal of passing the budget before the 83rd day was respected,” said Neil Bergsman, executive director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. That year, which also is the last time lawmakers failed to reach a budget agreement within the regular session, lawmakers learned that the 83rd day was essentially a guideline that couldn’t be enforced, Bergsman said.
“Now, it seems like they go past the 83rd day at least half the time,” he said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda, vice chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said it could be complicated to create a Senate rule mandating the 83rd-day deadline given what already is written in the constitution.
Also, such a deadline only would apply to the general budget bill, which this year was passed by the deadline, Frosh said; lawmakers needed the special session to consider additional budget-related bills.
Frosh added that he wasn’t sure a new rule was necessary because lawmakers missed a deadline for the first time in 20 years.
Bergsman said it was more important for leaders in the House and Senate to enforce the deadline on their own, rather than pursue a rule change.
“Having the expectation and the understanding that they’ll get the budget done within when the constitution says they’re supposed to and being firm about that is more important than a formal rule,” Bergsman said. “It was the extraneous matters that created the problems with meeting the 83rd day deadline. I know Sen. Miller and others have contradicted that, but it’s how it looked at the time.”
Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for O’Malley, said although the governor has little control over the budget after it’s introduced, a move toward earlier approval of the spending plan would be welcomed by the administration.
“It would be ideal if we could have the budget debated, considered and passed in a timely manner,” Guillory said. “But if this special proves anything, it’s that things can happen.”