Josh Kurtz: Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

By Josh Kurtz

The Washington Post hit my doorstep last Tuesday morning, and to my amazement and dismay, it did not tell me what had happened in the final hours of the General Assembly session. The front-page article on the session appeared to have been written about 10 p.m. Monday and talked about deals that were still pending but likely to come together.

What this says about the state of Maryland political journalism — that you cannot be informed about the session’s last-minute developments in the print edition of one the state’s two media titans — is a topic for another day. Maybe a later edition of the Post had the full story; maybe there wasn‘t a later edition. Who knows? (And to be fair to the Post, my friends who subscribe to the print edition of the Baltimore Sun reported the same reaction when they went out to their doorsteps Tuesday morning and found a newspaper headline touting a budget and gambling deal close to sine die competition.)

So I spent half the day Tuesday reading websites, blogs and Twitter feeds in order to piece together what had happened late Monday night — or more to the point, what hadn’t. (Kudos especially to the Baltimore Sun’s Annie Linskey, whose steady stream of tweets were both informative and entertaining.)

But now it occurs to me: A full week later, we still don’t know exactly what happened. And the future is likewise shrouded in mystery.

It seems inevitable that there will be a special session before the “Doomsday” budget kicks in on July 1. There are simply too many Democrats in the legislature who would rather raise taxes than see significant cuts to K-12 and higher education spending.

But what else comes along with it is anybody’s guess, and the Monday night meltdown — and its aftermath — speaks to a new level of dysfunction in Annapolis.

Voters despise political gridlock on Capitol Hill, but at least they understand partisan gamesmanship on a certain level. But political gridlock in a one party state is mystifying and embarrassing — and when the sticking point is essentially the question of whether or not to make reference to crap tables in the state constitution, well, that’s a little embarrassing, too.

Not only did the Monday night impasse throw every state agency and local government into unprecedented and uncomfortable funding limbo, but it also exposed the political weaknesses of the state’s three most powerful men: Martin O’Malley, Mike Miller and Mike Busch. And session watchers must, for now, give “incomplete” grades to other key players, like Rushern Baker and David Cordish.

The by now familiar rap on O’Malley — heck, I’ve made it a few times myself — is that he’s too distracted by his national ambitions and responsibilities with the Democratic Governors Association to govern effectively. Even if that’s an unfair criticism, it is fair to argue that O’Malley, despite six legislative sessions under his belt, has not figured out how to — or simply won’t — employ the full powers of his office to bend senators and delegates to his will.

Parris Glendening, for example, used the capital budget like a candy store, open for business to reward friends and punish enemies and, most essentially, to cut deals to preserve his agenda. That seems like too grubby an undertaking for O‘Malley.

Much has been made of Miller’s rabid advocacy for gambling in Maryland, and his insistence that the legislature take up expanded gambling this session. And no doubt it was a big contributor to the Monday night mess.

But Busch’s ambivalence on gambling continues to be a factor in the policy debate and political horse-trading. If he had simply insisted that there wasn’t enough time and support in the House to put together a big gambling bill in the session’s final days, instead of his stated willingness, in his own words, to “keep an open mind,” then Miller might have relented. Instead, Busch offered his troops little guidance or information, as they watched their tax package land in purgatory.

At this point, Busch is liked and admired by his colleagues, but he’s not feared. Junior House members, despairing that they’ll never have an opportunity to move up in the gridlocked chamber, are becoming bolder about speaking out and bucking the party line. And Busch has little in the way of carrots or sticks to wave in front of them.

In the Senate, couple Miller’s failed high-stakes bet on the table stakes bill, along with Rob Garagiola’s Democratic primary defeat, the failure to pass a gas tax increase and the Senate’s public rebuke of Uly Currie, and it was one of the president’s worst sessions ever. He is now a caricature of himself, more beholden to the gambling lobby than ever, and an easy and increasingly frequent political attack line.

Not that his long tenure appears to be in any danger of coming to an end. Editorial boards and Peter Franchot may call for his ouster, but that’s just a sideshow. Every legislative chamber has its own dynamic, and Miller still seems very much in control. There isn’t anybody with the stature — or the chutzpah — to put together a coalition necessary to attempt a coup.

But you can see some cracks in Miller’s former veneer of invincibility. One of his top lieutenants, Brian Frosh — who is always given wide leeway to demonstrate his independence — voted against both the budget and maintenance of effort bills. And the harsh criticism of leadership in the past few weeks by such junior Democratic senators as Bobby Zirkin and Bill Ferguson is telling.

One of the reasons Senate Democrats have tolerated Miller all these years is that he knows how to take care of them — when he isn’t subtly menacing them. And they’ve ignored his tactics and high-handedness because it hasn’t represented any kind of threat to them.

But that may have changed with Garagiola’s primary defeat. If association with Miller is perceived as a liability, then more senators will move away from him — and that could have profound political implications indeed.

Meantime, anyone who has doubted that the gambling issue is going to vex our political leaders for years to come has another guess coming. It’s amazing that promising — and otherwise sober-minded — elected officials like Rushern Baker and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake are now staking their careers on the expansion of gambling in their jurisdictions.

With most of Maryland’s neighbors expanding the menu of gambling activities they offer, it’s almost inevitable that Maryland will do the same. The idea that Baltimore city can offer full gambling attractions, rather than just a slots parlor, or that gambling can come to a top-notch resort destination like National Harbor, makes perfect economic sense.

It doesn’t make you feel any better, though, about the state of the state — or the people who are leading it.

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:

Heather Mizeur, Superstar

Striking Back at the Empire

Bad Karma in Annapolis

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