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First Click, Maryland -- Budget is down to wire

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Thursday, April 8, 2010:

The Agenda

Aaron.jpgMeanwhile, back at the ranch. ... While the world of Maryland politics focused on Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign announcement in Rockville on Wednesday, conventional wisdom in Annapolis was that state lawmakers would quietly reach a final budget deal.

Conventional wisdom turned out to be wishful thinking. House lawmakers never showed for negotiations on Wednesday night, and when assembled senators got the word they weren't coming, they left and took with them any hope that this year's budget wouldn't come down to the wire.

budgetconf10.jpgThe best-case scenario now goes like this: House and Senate negotiators plan to return to the table at 7:30 this morning and hash out a compromise before both chambers go into session at 10 a.m. If they do, the revised budget plan can be reprinted and voted on in the Senate on Friday, and in the House on Saturday, leaving only a final vote on the state's capital budget for Sine Die on Monday.

Should negotiators fail to reach a deal this morning -- and judging from the way things broke down on Wednesday night, that's a real possibility -- then the General Assembly could find itself juggling votes on both the general fund and capital budgets on the last day of session. That scenario would imperil dozens and perhaps hundreds of other bills that still need last-minute attention but that could never reach the floor if bottled up in the queue behind the budget.

Although dozens of items remained unresolved Wednesday night, a final deal hinges on beginning to correct the state's long-term budget imbalance, according to House and Senate negotiators.

The Senate last month passed a budget that calls for beginning to shift teacher pension costs to counties and eliminating indefinitely a pot of hundreds of millions of dollars typically sent to counties for local road projects. The House rejected the shift in teacher pension costs and voted to begin returning the road funding to counties in a couple years.

House negotiators on Tuesday signaled for the first time that they would be willing to partially roll back future funding for local road projects and would agree to set up a commission to study teacher pension costs.

Senate members of the budget conference committee, however, scoffed at that proposal, saying it barely grazed the state's long-term deficit problem. The Senate budget would halve the state's projected shortfall to $1.1 billion by 2015. The House version would leave it several hundreds of millions dollars higher.

With essentially two bargaining chips in the game, some senators believe they should get their way entirely with either road funding or pensions. And they seem to acknowledge the House lacks the votes to agree to the Senate version on teacher pension reform. So that leaves road funding, and on Wednesday night neither side seemed ready to budge.

It remains to be seen how long it could take the House and Senate to agree, in part because eliminating road funding is no small issue in an election year. House members are vulnerable in key districts where pothole politics could play a big part in November.

-- Aaron C. Davis

News You Should Know

Ehrlich proposes sales tax cut, doubling of charter schools
ehrlich.jpg"Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged to cut the sales tax, double the number of charter schools and make the state friendlier to small businesses as he kicked off his campaign Wednesday to 'recapture the State House,'" writes The Post's John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis. "'Welcome to history, part two,' Ehrlich told a crowd of close to 200 people at Rockville Town Center for the official announcement of his rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who in 2006 ended Ehrlich's tenure as Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation."

Ehrlich says Steele will be judged on wins and losses
Steele mug.jpgFormer Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) acknowledged embattled Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele is "untraditional" and "controversial" but was generally supportive of his former lieutenant governor during an interview Wednesday on NewsChannel 8. "Regardless of short-term controversies ... Michael will be judged on the ultimate wins and losses," Ehrlich told interview Bruce DePuyt. "From that perspective, he's looking pretty good." Democrats at the state and national levels have tried to inject Steele into Ehrlich's race, saying Steele's current tribulations reflect poorly on Ehrlich's judgment. Steele is under fire for lavish spending of donor contributions. As LG, Steele was "capable, loyal and terrific," Ehrlich said. At the RNC, "I think he remains a net plus, but with controversies, there's no doubt about it." -- John Wagner

Bill to raise auto insurance requirements goes to governor
"After a political duel that pitted trial lawyers against insurance companies, the legislature moved Wednesday to increase the minimum amount of insurance vehicle owners must carry, changing the requirements for the first time in 38 years and making higher premiums likely for as many as 200,000 Marylanders," reports The Baltimore Sun's Michael Dresser. "The Senate voted 27-20 to send the measure raising liability insurance limits to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has signaled that he will sign it. The bill would raise the current minimum auto coverage protecting victims of crashes from $20,000 per person and $40,000 per crash to $30,000 and $60,000, respectively."

Vallario standing ground on ignition interlocks bill
vallario.jpg"With the legislative session dwindling down to a precious few days, the man everybody knows simply as 'the chairman' shuffled through the mounds of paperwork on his desk in search of fresh evidence to make his case," writes The Post's Ashley Halsey III, in a piece that looks at the fight over ignition interlocks. "Other than the guard in the marbled lobby, Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's) was virtually the last person in the House office building. His staff was long gone, and the powerful committee he has controlled for 27 years had adjourned to nearby Annapolis eateries. But Vallario wasn't quite finished with his argument against efforts to toughen Maryland's laws against drunken driving."

Quotables (Expanded Ehrlich Announcement Edition)

Thumbnail image for MD-OpeningDay-Ehrlich.JPG"Welcome to history, part two."
-- former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in Rockville

"Bob Ehrlich, like Winston Churchill, has had his wilderness years."
-- Howard A. Denis, former Montgomery County Council and state Senate member, speaking in Rockville

"Today former governor Robert Ehrlich formally announced his entrance into the Maryland gubernatorial race. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters responds with a resounding, 'Been there, done that, can't afford to do it again.'"
-- Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the environmental group, which has endorsed O'Malley

Thumbnail image for Kendel.jpg"The time has come to put that woman back in the mansion."
-- Ehrlich in Arbutus, gesturing to his wife, Kendel

"I'm not telling you how old Kendel is, because I've got to go home tonight."
-- Ehrlich in Arbutus, after relaying that his two sons are now 10 and 6 years old

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for O'Malley recent mug.jpg"I've now answered about 20 times as many questions as my challenger has."
-- Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), in the middle of a media availability in Annapolis, following Ehrlich's Rockville announcement

"Jim Pelura is a former chairman for a reason."
-- Ehrlich, during an interview on NewsChannel 8, when asked about the former GOP chairman's support of unknown Ehrlich primary rival Brian Murphy

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Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics. Each weekday, First Click brings you The Agenda, a concise, forward-looking analysis of the day's top development in politics or policy. "News You Should Know" breaks down top stories from across the state. And Look Ahead, Unspun, News Makers, and Week in Review keep you up to speed with power brokers in Annapolis and beyond. Want First Click on the go? Sign up for our free e-mail edition, and get the news delivered to your inbox or mobile device.

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By Aaron C. Davis  |  April 8, 2010; 6:45 AM ET
Categories:  Aaron C. Davis , First Click , John Wagner  
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Next: Ehrlich sets out on Md. campaign trail

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