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Leaders on Both Sides Take Aim at O'Malley, Special Session

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Special Session 2007: Budget Crisis

By Bernie Becker
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot and Republican Sen. Andy Harris are rarely on the same side -- except possibly when it comes to taking swipes at Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Franchot on Wednesday continued to question the special session O'Malley called to confront a looming $1.7 billion state budget shortfall, and condemned the governor's decision to link slots revenues to a property tax rollback and parts of his spending plan.

Later in the day, Baltimore County's Harris blasted what he called a "calculated effort" by the O'Malley administration to intimidate state contractors into supporting the governor's proposals to bridge the budget gap.

Harris pointed to administration e-mails asking state officials to get feedback on the governor's plan from "advocacy groups, constituencies and beneficiaries of your agency's services."

Aides to the governor brushed aside both broadsides, continuing to stress the need for the special session and saying the administration was "simply providing information" to the public about possible budget cuts if the governor's plan is not enacted.

O'Malley said Tuesday, before the criticism from Franchot and Harris, that he was getting "pretty good feedback" on the special session so far.

Franchot, a longtime opponent of slot machines, said he was "disappointed to read" that slots were now being linked to a proposed 3-cent decrease in the property tax rate and funding for school construction and increasing Medicaid eligibility.

The administration said Tuesday that the property tax cut and the education funds were contingent on voters passing a slots referendum next November. Only part of the governor's health care plan would proceed without slots.

"Slots have very little to do with the fiscal deficit," Franchot said, adding it seems the state is "more interested in lining the pockets of the national gambling industry" than tackling the shortfall.

An O'Malley spokeswoman said that slots will eventually produce around $700 million in state revenues and are just "one component of the governor's comprehensive long-term plan."

"As the chief tax collector of our state, the comptroller should understand that," said Christine Hansen.

Franchot also continued his assault on the special session itself, saying any budget issues would be better dealt with in January's regular legislative session. The best case scenario for the special session would be deferring most decisions until January instead of forcing them during the current "highly charged . . . mini-regular session," he said.

But Hansen said the governor continues to believe that all budget issues, including slots, "need to be considered together."

While Franchot attacked the governor's plans, Harris attacked the governor directly, criticizing what he called "scare tactics" by the administration.

Harris brandished an e-mail from Stephen Kearney, O'Malley's communications director, asking executive branch staffers to get feedback about the governor's revenue plan.

He also handed out a letter from General Services Secretary Alvin Collins to contractors that praised O'Malley's proposals and called the alternative budget cuts "very bleak." The letter then asked contractors to help ensure "Marylanders have the opportunity to make an informed decision" about the governor's plan.

Harris said he was tipped off by a constituent who felt intimidated after being contacted by the administration.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said it is the Cabinets "responsibility to inform the public on the impact of potential" budget cuts, "which is exactly what they were doing."

Aides to the governor also passed out talking points sent to state agencies by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, criticizing the General Assembly and lauding Ehrlich.

But Harris said what the O'Malley administration distributed "was not just . . . talking points." They were "unsolicited e-mails" that were clearly meant to intimidate, he said.

Harris added he had asked the attorney general's office to investigate the use of state offices for lobbying, saying previous opinions from the attorney general "clearly did not address" this particular issue.

"At worst, what we're seeing is illegal," he said. "At best, it is highly unethical."

But Abbruzzese referenced a March letter from an assistant attorney general that said government staff "do not need express statutory authority to advocate views on policy matters."

Harris just "doesn't understand the law," he said.

Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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