By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (November 7, 2007) - Senate leaders vowed final votes by Thursday evening on bills to legalize slot machines and raise hundreds of millions in new taxes, one day after the bills were first brought to the Senate floor.
Despite complaints by some lawmakers that the measures were rushed through, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said he expects the Senate to be finished with those bills, and a separate health care measure, by Thursday.
"There's no reason to drag this out," said Miller, adding the special session could be completed in the next week. "If not, I'll be ready to wave the white flag."
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's, called the pace of the special session outrageous and complained about most decisions being "backroom deals subject to no public hearings."
The tax and slots bills were passed Tuesday night out of the Budget and Taxation Committee and the health insurance bill was voted out of the Finance Committee Wednesday evening.
But Democrats responded that Wednesday's deliberations shed no new light on slots or taxes.
"Nothing was talked about that" lawmakers have not discussed before, said Sen. Nancy King, D-Montgomery.
The bills are the main parts of Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to close a projected $1.7 billion budget gap.
The slots proposal calls for a November referendum on slots that could allow 15,000 machines in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties. The tax bills call for a more progressive income tax rate, a corporate income tax increase, closing corporate tax loopholes, raising the sales tax and extending it to new services.
But the Budget and Taxation Committee on Tuesday tossed out a property tax cut proposed by the governor and dropped the language on corporate tax loopholes. It also made the income tax rate less progressive than proposed by the governor.
O'Malley had claimed before the Senate changes that more than 80 percent of Marylanders would pay less under his plan. He conceded Wednesday that was no longer the case but added he was not surprised by the changes.
The Senate "is the more conservative of the two houses," O'Malley said. "It's more cautious, less likely to take any kind of fiscal chances."
But Republicans still are unhappy. They hope to make changes to the bills and some opponents have even threatened to filibuster the tax bill Thursday.
On Wednesday, Republicans and some Democrats questioned budget committee members for hours about the amended bills.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Wicomico, asked whether the Eastern Shore was considered in deciding whether to raise the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents per dollar, pointing out that neighboring Delaware still has no sales tax.
Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore County, noted that Worcester County commissioners oppose slots in their county and asked whether the committee cared about local opinion in deciding locations for slot machine parlors.
Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, R-Frederick, said the proposals "were still very problematic" and added that "more doubts were being raised" the longer lawmakers were in session.
"A lot of improvements could be made" if the Senate deliberated longer, Brinkley added. "It's pretty tragic."
Republicans were not the only ones to question the amended proposals.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, said he "didn't like the income tax rates being flattened" and objected that the language to close corporate loopholes was thrown out. Those changes might lead Pinsky to vote against the proposals.
"I might have to do more than just pinch my nose" this time, he said.
But Pinsky believes the proposals will be voted on soon and likely passed.
"Is it fast? Yes, it's fast," he said. "But I've learned when you have the votes, you can do almost anything" in Annapolis.
To Brinkley and other Republicans, that is part of the problem.
Attempting to vote this quickly is being done just to ram bills through, Brinkley said. This session "is being driven not out of prudence, but out of politics."