Josh Kurtz: Bad Karma in Annapolis

By Josh Kurtz

Occasionally, during the course of a General Assembly session, I’m asked whether I think a particular piece of legislation has a chance of passing.

The answer gets tougher as the session hits its final days. Legislation no longer rises or falls on its merits. The fate of dozens of bills become intertwined as the governor and legislative leaders enter intricate, high-stakes negotiations, and only they seem to know the rules.

The governor’s agenda is always like a house of cards — the slightest whiff of a breeze can make it come crashing down. On the other hand, some critical structural element can be removed and rather than toppling, as you expect it to, the house stands strong.

With less than two weeks left of this legislative session, we’ve entered that period where precious few people actually know what’s going on. But there are a couple of things we do know: that budget deliberations are more confusing than ever, with no easy resolution in sight, and that we’ve entered a period of unprecedented bad feeling in Annapolis, with legislators restive and the governor distracted.

This year, policymakers have been working with not one, not two, but three versions of the state budget. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) came up with his own, as he’s required to do by law, after floating proposals for tax increases without giving them much thought or building any support. The Senate felt compelled to rewrite it. Then the House decided to pass a significantly different version, borrowing a few elements of the governor’s plan.

Sure, the governor and legislative leaders will come to an agreement in the end — they always do. But it’s amazing how swiftly the Senate chose to ignore O’Malley’s budget. And how hastily House leaders worked, without much input from the rank-and-file, to throw together their own version.

A key question left unanswered is whether either chamber will have the stomach to tackle the gas tax — or whether transportation and infrastructure projects will go wanting yet again, maybe for the foreseeable future, since no one is going to want to raise additional taxes as the 2014 election approaches.

If O’Malley is pushing for his gas tax proposal, beyond some forceful testimony in legislative hearings, there’s scant evidence, though there are reports that key aides are working on persuadable lawmakers. At the same time, some of the governor’s top environmental initiatives are stalled or being scaled back.

O’Malley worked hard to pass the same-sex marriage legislation earlier in the session and he can probably claim credit for persuading the necessary number of holdouts to vote for the bill. But instead of building on that momentum and redoubling his efforts on behalf of his other priorities, O’Malley‘s attention has been elsewhere.

Last week, as critical elements of his agenda were being buffeted in the House and Senate, O’Malley was playing with his rock band at the White House, attending a reception for the Irish prime minister on Capitol Hill, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and headlining a fundraiser for the Connecticut Democratic Party. At the same time, to coincide with the NCAA basketball tournament, “The Fix” column in the Washington Post ran a fanciful 2016 presidential bracket showing O’Malley seeded second in the Democratic nomination contest, while Roll Call weighed the political implications of O’Malley’s performance on congressional redistricting, comparing him with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (the top seed in the Post’s Democratic sweepstakes).

Given all that, how can Annapolis lawmakers not conclude that O’Malley doesn’t much care about what they’re doing and would rather be elsewhere — whether that’s a fair characterization or not?

But even if they’re not grumbling about “the second floor,” senators and delegates are wrestling with their own specific set of miseries, bringing to mind the classic Tolstoy line that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Earlier this year, when House members gathered to celebrate Speaker Mike Busch becoming the longest-tenured speaker in state history, Busch, gracious man that he is, pointed out that Adrienne Jones had likewise become the longest-serving speaker pro tem, that Kumar Barve had become the longest-serving House majority leader, and that Joe Vallario and Sheila Hixson were the longest-serving chairmen of their respective committees.

But that’s just the problem — no one’s going anywhere, and ambitious, deserving up and comers are stuck and frustrated and wondering if they’ll be collecting Social Security before an opportunity to move up comes along. Last week, some of the big budget and tax bills were being defended on the House floor not by Hixson, the Ways and Means chairman, or Appropriations Chairman Norm Conway, but by younger delegates like John Bohanan and Anne Kaiser and Bill Frick. That raised more than a few eyebrows.

In the Senate, even though Mike Miller’s astonishing tenure as president is 2 ½ times as long as Busch’s as speaker, there may not quite be the same level of restlessness. But Miller’s handpicked deputy, Majority Leader Rob Gargiola, is being roughed up in his congressional primary in large part because of his association with Annapolis insiders in general and Miller specifically — the first time in memory that Miller has been fingered as a liability by name.

Imagine the pall that will be cast over the entire Senate chamber if Garagiola, once heavily favored, loses his primary next week. Garagiola is not widely loved by his colleagues, and he alone will deserve plenty of the blame if he‘s upset by John Delaney. But his loss will be a stain on every Democratic senator, and their chosen leader — and it will impede somebody else’s opportunity to rise and take his spot as majority leader.

On top of the that, the recent outburst by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D), who said in an email to supporters that raising taxes on the wealthy was “moronic and divisive,” was startling to say the least, considering he’s a team player from a liberal Baltimore County district with a significant Jewish constituency. That may be a sign of some kind of deeper Democratic discontent — we just don’t know what it is at this stage.

So that’s Annapolis in a nutshell right now. A lucky 13 days remain in this session — and no one can get out fast enough.

NOTE TO READERS: Next week, my column will appear on Thursday, April 5 rather than on Tuesday, so everyone has an opportunity to absorb and interpret the Maryland primary results. Thanks for your indulgence.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

More Than a Protest Vote

Doug Duncan’s Next Act

Marital Difficulties

Prince George’s Agonistes

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths

Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

The Brawl We Won’t Be Seeing Here (Plus: Women Emerge in Maryland)

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?