By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicted Wednesday that the General Assembly would not pass any new taxes this session, despite pressure to deal with a predicted shortfall of revenue for the state budget.
Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said there is not enough time remaining in the current General Assembly session for legislators to form a consensus on new taxes.
Miller has himself proposed a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax to finance state roads and schools. Though not a tax, the Senate president has also been a strong backer of slot machines as a revenue raising tool.
Both of those now appear to be off the table, Miller said, and he has previously dismissed as "dead on arrival" a proposed doubling of the cigarette tax from $1 to $2 per pack, which has been championed by the House speaker, Delegate Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Miller's remarks came after the Senate approved modest cuts in Gov. Martin O'Malley's $30 billion budget.
While maintaining the governor's funding priorities in health care and education, the Senate approved a set of cuts totaling $112 million that would hold budget growth to 2.8 percent, slightly below the 3.1 percent in a version of the budget already passed by the House of Delegates.
The two versions of the budget must be reconciled by the two chambers before it can be passed.
In Wednesday's action, Senate Democrats rejected an effort by Republicans to resolve the deficit by 2011 without tax increases by a combination of spending cuts and slot machine revenue.
The Republican proposal would limit year-over-year spending on education to 8 percent, or slice $320 million from the Democrat's proposed spending on education. And spending caps would be placed on teacher pensions and other programs.
"It's not a cut. It's a restraint in growth," said bill sponsor Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Eastern Shore. "You're going to hurt more people by raising taxes than by leveling funding," he said during the Senate session.
But Democrats blasted the proposal because they said it fell short on education and health care funding.
"What this (the Republican) bill doesn't tell you is how much tuition rates would go up, the number of people who would lose health care. It looks nice, but as the sponsor said, the devil is in the details," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery.
Miller said he was against the proposed budget cuts but called the GOP proposal "a valiant effort."
"They recognize how dire the situation is," Miller said. "People need to understand the ramification of the cuts."
Miller repeated his belief that a special session of the Assembly is needed to deal comprehensively with the state's fiscal problems.
"The problem I have is we need a more comprehensive look," Miller said. "We need cuts as well as revenues as well as slots. And we're going to have all three. It just takes time."
The proposed cigarette tax increase would be a critical revenue source for a health care bill supported by Busch that would reduce the number of uninsured in the state. The bill easily passed the House, but Miller has said it will not pass the Senate. Chances of a special session also look unlikely given the opposition voiced by both O'Malley and Busch.
Leaders of both Houses have indicated that they are waiting for the governor to make his move on a more comprehensive revenue package.
"We want the governor to lead. We'll follow," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. O'Malley has been opposed to raising taxes this session in favor of a wait-and-see approach.