- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers yesterday voted to force Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to spend an additional $40 million this year on the Thornton education initiative.

The Democratic-controlled House voted mostly along party lines, 93-43, to remove a mandate from Thornton that required state lawmakers to decide how to pay for the initiative.

If a similar bill passes the Senate, then Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, will have to find a way an additional $1.3 billion over six years to close the disparity between rich and poor school districts. The General Assembly passed the bill in 2002.

Ehrlich administration spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the governor has yet to decided whether to sign or veto the bill if it passes the Senate as early as next week.

But the governor believes that lawmakers have “abandoned their fiscal responsibility,” Mr. Fawell said. “They passed a $1.3 billion unfunded mandate and they know full well they have no money to pay for it.”

Mr. Ehrlich has proposed paying for the initiative with revenue from slot machines he wants to put at four horse tracks and maybe elsewhere. House Democrats rejected the plan last year.

The governor has not included projected slots revenue in next year’s budget and has proposed paying about $325 million for Thornton — about $40 million less than called for in the original plan.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he reduced the funding in 2005 to close a $700 million budget shortfall left by his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

If slots are approve, it would take time for them to start making money, which has prompted lawmakers to push for tax increases to cover a shortfall, despite Mr. Ehrlich’s promise to veto increases on sales and income taxes.

“There has to be some give and take on the governor’s part,” said House Deputy Majority Whip Emmett C. Burns Jr., Baltimore County Democrat.

“I think we need [an increase] in a sales tax,” he said. “If the governor relented, then there might be some compromise made on slots.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said yesterday when the bill arrives in the Senate he will push for increasing licensing fees for video terminals.

That was the first time Mr. Miller has publicly mentioned such a plan.

In yesterday’s vote, Republicans Jean B. Cryor, Montgomery, and John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel, voted with Democrats.

Democrats Joseph J. Minnick and John S. Arnick, Baltimore County, and Kevin Kelly, Allegany County, voted against the bill.

Mr. Kelly said he voted against the bill because everybody must first agree on how to pay for the Thornton initiative.

“The proponents of this support sales and income tax increases,” he said. “And I am just totally opposed to that. Also this bill, without a funding mechanism, means we will have dramatic cuts to local government, and I just think that is totally irresponsible.”

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