Groups Call for Special Session, Republicans Disagree

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Several Maryland groups on Wednesday pressured lawmakers to reconvene for a special session and prevent more than $500 million in cuts under the “doomsday” budget, rejecting Republican claims that the current budget is sufficient.

Representatives from education, public safety and health groups said in a press conference that the reductions would spell disaster for services run largely through local governments, including funding for libraries, schools and law enforcement agencies.

“Our message is clear: It is time for Gov. (Martin) O’Malley, legislative leaders, the Senate, the House and the members of the bodies to come back and go back to work,” said Henry Bogdan, director of public policy and public affairs for Maryland Nonprofits, an organization that advocates for the state’s nonprofits.

But Republican legislators at a Tuesday press conference said a special session is unnecessary, calling the “doomsday” term a misnomer.

“There is not a single cut, not one dime,” Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, R-Cecil, said in an interview Wednesday, pointing to a $700 million increase in spending under the budget that passed on April 9.

Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute, challenged the Republican stance Wednesday. The spending increases, he said, are offset by higher costs for medical care and employee benefits, still leaving services vulnerable.

“There’s actually much less money to deliver services to the citizens,” said Bergsman, who did not speak at the 2 p.m. press conference, but stood next to a “Countdown to Doomsday” clock ticking off the seconds until the cuts would take effect on July 1.

“The value we get is going to be slashed dramatically if these doomsday cuts are allowed to go through,” Bergsman said.

Some of the cuts’ biggest impact could be on education, resulting in larger class sizes in elementary schools and significant tuition hikes and reduced financial aid at public universities.

“The possibility of losing a scholarship that I depend on and a steep tuition increase is not the best news to hear right before my senior year,” said Tokunbo Okulaja, a junior government and politics major at the University of Maryland, where officials said students could see a 12 to 13 percent rise in in-state tuition.

The press conference, held on the first floor of the Maryland State Education Association building, took place against a backdrop in Annapolis that has shifted from public finger pointing to private discussions.

Tensions have been high among prominent Democratic leaders since the General Assembly failed to enact a revenue bill on the last day of the session, a moment O’Malley called “the low point” of his time in Annapolis.

After talking with House Speaker Michael Busch over the weekend, O’Malley met with Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. and key members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Tuesday, as leaders try to forge a consensus on a revenue plan before calling lawmakers back to Annapolis.

The governor’s press office on Wednesday said O’Malley has no new meetings scheduled, but the conversations are ongoing.