By Tom LoBianco

The Fiscal Leaders Committee, a secretive grouping of the Maryland General Assembly’s most powerful members, has met routinely through good budget times and bad.

But as the state struggles through its worst budget storm in generations, the group has met on only a handful of occasions.

Partisan rancor and a decade’s worth of skirmishes have driven a wedge between the two men who jointly determine when the group will meet: House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

Miller, Busch, and other budget leaders in the General Assembly can’t remember the last time it met, although they know it was some time last year.

“I'm not exactly sure why they haven't been meeting, I'd love to have a meeting, at least between the principals," Busch said.

Miller previously sought to include Republicans in the meetings, but said the group may be unnecessary now.

“I have in the past found it valuable, especially when we had very limited staff, but our staff is so well trained now that they serve the House and Senate majority and minority parties the same information,” Miller said.

Democratic sources polled over the past week say the tension between the House and the Senate has made hammering out budget agreements tough until lawmakers are absolutely forced to at the end of session.

Maryland leaders, like those in other states, have struggled to balance revenues and expenses through the economic recession by laying off workers, furloughing employees and using one-time fixes to pass balanced budgets.

The Fiscal Leaders Committee is a loose-knit group of Miller, Busch, and the House and Senate’s fiscal committee chairmen and Majority Leaders.

Information on the group is available in the Maryland Manual, which says the committee began meeting in the 1970s and “provided an unstructured venue for fiscal committee chairs and the presiding officer to meet with their counterparts in the opposite chamber for informal discussions while the State budget was under consideration by the General Assembly. Generally, the Senate President and House Speaker attend, the chairs and sometimes the vice-chairs of all the fiscal committees attend, and other attendees participate at the invitation of the Senate President and House Speaker.”

But the public has been kept out of the meetings in the past because the committee has been deemed to not be covered by the state’s open meetings laws.

At the heart of the split is whether Republican lawmakers should be in the room, according to those sources.

Republicans have been kept from the meetings since the beginning of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s term in office in 2003.

Miller proposed letting then-Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley join the meetings at the start of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s term in 2007. Miller has long touted the work of centrist Republicans in crafting budget compromises.

Democratic lawmakers reached out to Republican leaders this week in a rare meeting called to vet alternative budget proposals. One of the underlying talking points in the run-up to the hearing was cordiality and openness to discussing ideas between the parties.

“It's kind of funny, you get together for something like this, but you can’t get together for a senior level discussion of the state's priorities,” House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell said shortly after the joint budget hearing Tuesday.

In 2004, O’Donnell promised the full support of the Republican caucus for any Democrat who would run against Busch to become speaker. Nobody took O’Donnell up on the offer, and the punishment from Busch, at least symbolically, was severe.

Busch and O’Donnell have maintained a professional, but cool, relationship since then.

The partisan rancor has been noticeable in the House, Brinkley said.

“The Senate President has been inclusive, the Republicans in this chamber have had our say. We have not always had our way, but we have been heard,” Brinkley said.

The decision of whether the Fiscal Leaders Committee meets ultimately rests with Busch and Miller, said Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly’s chief budget analyst.

Tension has always simmered between Busch and Miller, starting largely with the slot machines debate during Ehrlich’s tenure. The division between the two has largely dissipated since the passage of the slots bill in 2007, but not completely, the Democratic sources said.

Final budget agreements are hammered out in public during lengthy conference committee sessions near the end of each legislative session.

But the Fiscal Leaders Committee has, for the better part of two decades, been the forum for privately greasing the tracks on budget agreements.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway said he would like to see the group meet routinely, and that questions of why they haven’t been meeting should be directed at Miller.

Conway said he meets regularly with Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie, and that their lines of communication are strong.

Asked whether Republicans should be in the room, Conway said that was something for House and Senate leadership to determine.

“I think there’s a feeling on the House side that we would like to meet,” he said.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.