Friday, Aug. 31, 2007

O’Malley sets Sept. 30 deadline for agreement on special session

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ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley on Friday said legislative leaders need to reach consensus by the end of September in order to convene a special session of the General Assembly to address a projected $1.5 billion structural deficit.

‘‘The clock is ticking. The lieutenant governor and I already have a pretty good working idea of the number of steps that will be required to close this huge gap we inherited and hopefully we’ll have leadership consensus by [the end of] September,” O’Malley (D) said in his strongest comments to date.

The governor asked the legislature to delay action on the budget deficit during this year’s General Assembly to give him time to identify savings and develop consensus.

But the legislature’s presiding officers are split on how to tackle the deficit. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach wants lawmakers to come back before the regular session begins in January; House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis does not.

More importantly, a proposal to remedy the deficit has yet to be hashed out. O’Malley prefers a combination of cuts, tax increases and slot machine gambling. Busch has been leery to embrace a slots proposal championed by Miller in recent years.

But O’Malley said progress is being forged. ‘‘I think we’re getting closer. I think there’s about a half-dozen or more components to a comprehensive and responsible solution, part of which is resolving the slots issue.”

He added that there is consensus on all but a few elements of a plan. Slots are the biggest sticking point.

‘‘It’s going to take a number of difficult steps, one of which will be slots, which will require all of us, including myself, to compromise our own personal druthers in order to arrive at a consensus that allows us to advance the common good of our state,” the governor said.

If no special session is called, O’Malley said other important initiatives, such as health care, education and the environment, will take a back seat and result in an unproductive session. ‘‘It would absolutely dominate the regular session. It would crowd out every other issue.”

A special session would enable lawmakers to focus solely on the budget and clear the deck for the regular 90-day assembly, the governor said.