- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

Democratic leaders in Maryland’s House of Delegates yesterday halted budget negotiations and maintained an impasse on slot-machine gambling legislation.

“We are in a ‘hold’ position on the budget,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway said yesterday after a brief meeting with Senate budget negotiators. “There are a number [of] things we are close on.

“If we can get the major item of the property tax reduction … I think the other items in the budget can be worked out rather quickly,” said Mr. Conway, Wicomico Democrat.

In approving the state’s $25.6 billion budget, the House has insisted on a property tax cut of 4.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. The Senate has rejected the tax cut, saying it would be irresponsible to reduce taxes with budget deficits looming for the state.

“We feel we do need to do a property tax [cut], but let’s wait until we see where the economy is going,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. “They are looking to make as much political hay out of this as they can. I think they feel politically it plays well, but they are not looking at the long term.”

The Maryland Board of Public Works — led by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican — increased the property tax in 2003 to redress a long-standing practice of previous administrations.

According to state law, property taxes are collected to cover the cost of debt service on state bond issues. But previous administrations for years had used the general fund to subsidize a lower property tax rate.

Under the House plan, the property tax would fall from 13.2 to 8.4 cents per $100 in assessed value. The owner of a $300,000 home would save about $145 in property taxes under the plan.

The fiscal 2006 budget was supposed to have been completed yesterday, but negotiators plan to meet again today to resolve differences between House and Senate versions. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is required to agree on a budget before the 90-day session adjourns Monday.

Meanwhile, the House maintained its refusal to negotiate on slots legislation, insisting that its plan be given final approval.

The House wants to authorize 9,500 slot machines in four jurisdictions; the Senate wants 15,500 in seven locations.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said his chamber does not want to vote on a Senate slots plan.

“The feedback I get from my caucus, even those who voted for the bill, don’t want to vote for the bill again,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said yesterday that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “had to twist arms to get a narrow victory in his chamber.”

“I know that the Senate version would be a lot less popular than the House version,” said Mr. Barve, Montgomery Democrat. “I just don’t think the Senate bill would go anywhere in the House.”

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, did not return a call seeking comment. He has said he thinks a compromise can be reached in the slots stalemate.

Mr. Ehrlich has proposed legalizing slots to revive the state’s horse-racing industry and fund education initiatives.

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