- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said he disagrees with Democrats’ plans to increase taxes to reduce the state’s budget shortfall but will listen to their ideas to rework his proposal for slot machines to generate revenue.

“I think that it is a good first step,” Mr. Ehrlich said in an interview with The Washington Times. “It has opened the way for a more serious discussion.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, announced the compromise plan about two weeks ago, after a long campaign for tax increases to reduce an expected $1 billion shortfall by 2005.

Mr. Busch, who was instrumental in ending Mr. Ehrlich’s slots plan in the General Assembly, had proposed taxing the services of doctors, lawyers and hairstylists to raise an additional $600 million, which would make the state one of the most heavily taxed in the nation.

Mr. Ehrlich instead has cut $208 million from the upcoming $22.2 billion budget and promised more reductions, though he is likely to reintroduce his slots initiative in January when the General Assembly reconvenes. He said the proposal to put slot machines in four Maryland racetracks would generate about $700 million a year.

Mr. Busch wants the Maryland Stadium Authority to finance and build a facility at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium that would feature thousands of slot machines, a restaurant and simulcast racing.

The state would own the slots but lease the site from the nonprofit company that runs the fairgrounds and have a casino company run the facility. The plan is similar to one at the Aqueduct racetrack in New York.

Mr. Ehrlich said he looks forward to working with Mr. Busch.

“I welcome it,” he said. “I think it is a positive development. I have always said we would engage if the speaker showed a willingness to discuss the issue. It would have made no sense for us to engage the issue without the speaker.”

Mr. Ehrlich’s slots legislation was approved in the Senate this year but blocked in the House, where Mr. Busch assailed the plan.

The governor has said slot machines would provide an alternative revenue source to fund the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission initiative to improve public education by 2005.

He also said a lot more work must be done before a bipartisan agreement is reached on the bill.

Mr. Ehrlich also said the Republican Party is succeeding in Maryland based upon polls that show a nearly 60 percent approval rating.

“The GOP is in an interesting position,” he said. “We became relevant on [Election Day] Nov. 5. Now whether we stay relevant will be determined in the next cycle or two.”

Mr. Ehrlich says he believes Republicans can achieve success in Maryland even though they are outnumbered by Democrats in the state.

“If we do our part, the party will be relevant in the long term,” he said. “And Maryland will, in turn, be a two-party state. But we are not there yet. We are not even close.”

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