Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Deal Between Big Daddy and the GOP on Pensions?

The majority of our informants thought we got it mostly right on our post about Senate President Mike Miller’s effort to force the counties to eat teacher pensions. But one of our best-connected spies said I was wrong about one important item – and that points to an unthinkable deal between Big Daddy and the Republicans.

In our earlier post, we said the Republicans might resist a pension handoff. We based that on this remark by House Minority Leader Anthony O’Donnell (R-29C):

Shifting pension costs “almost guarantees the locals are going to raise your taxes,” O’Donnell said. “The onus will be on the locals to cut spending and the states will continue spending on their merry way.”
Apparently, Senate Republicans may feel differently about the issue than House Republicans – one of many items of disagreement between them. Back in 2007, the Senate GOP introduced an amendment to HB 50, the FY 2008 budget bill. Amendment 993627/1 would have instituted a series of budget cuts, including a cap of $555 million on state contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. (If that amendment had passed, the counties would now be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars a year.) The amendment failed on a strict party-line vote, with all 14 Senate Republicans voting in favor.

That creates an opportunity for a deal between Big Daddy and the Republicans. If Miller can win the votes of the GOP, he would need only nine more (in addition to himself) to get a majority and just fourteen more to get 29 votes, the number needed to break a filibuster. Surely Big Daddy can bully fourteen votes from his 33-vote caucus, right?

Anything is possible coming from Mike Miller, but we believe a deal of this kind is unlikely for two reasons.

1. Federal Aid
The Governor’s estimate of $350 million in federal aid in his original budget is very conservative. The ultimate total could be as much as $3.9 billion over 27 months. In fact, the Governor is so optimistic about federal aid that he is delaying cuts in local aid. All of this weakens Miller’s case for a pension handoff.

2. Caucus Politics
The prospect of Big Daddy cooperating with Republicans and a minority of the Democratic Caucus to push an initiative hated by the big counties would cause significant conflict among his troops. Miller’s true objective has always been to expand the size of his majority as much as possible. That means not endangering fragile incumbents and raising lots of money for competitive races.

One of Big Daddy’s vehicles for steering money has been his Democratic Senatorial Committee Slate fund. Since 1999, this fund has received $1.5 million, much of it coming from individual Senators’ campaign accounts (including Miller’s). The fund has helped Democrats in tight races several times. For example, the fund contributed $45,000 to Baltimore County Senator Kathy Klausmeier (D-8) on 11/1/06 to help her hold off Republican challenger Craig Borne. And then-challenger Rob Garagiola received $9,500 from the fund on 10/26/02 towards his ouster of Senator Jean Roesser (R-15), which succeeded by just 755 votes. Garagiola has sworn loyalty to Big Daddy ever since. Miller’s ability to wield this sort of power depends on the enthusiasm of his caucus to contribute to this fund and others at his direction.

Big Daddy loves to float trial balloons in the press and keep people guessing, but he is one of the most pragmatic politicians in Annapolis. It is highly improbable that he would endanger the ability of his caucus to work together to expand his majority – and therefore his personal power – in service of a battle he is unlikely to win.

We still believe Mike Miller will stand down. County leaders everywhere are praying we are right!